UNBRIDLED consumption has decimated global wildlife, triggered a mass extinction and exhausted Earth’s capacity to accommodate humanity’s expanding appetites, the conservation group WWF warned on Tuesday.
From 1970 to 2014, 60 per cent of all animals with a backbone – fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – were wiped out by human activity, according to WWF’s “Living Planet” report, based on an ongoing survey of more than 4,000 species spread over 16,700 populations scattered across the globe.
“The situation is really bad, and it keeps getting worse,” said WWF International director general Marco Lambertini. “The only good news is that we know exactly what is happening.”
For freshwater fauna, the decline in population over the 44 years monitored was a staggering 80 per cent. Regionally, Latin America was hit hardest, seeing a nearly 90 per cent loss of wildlife over the same period.
Another dataset confirmed the depth of an unfolding mass extinction event, only the sixth in the last half-billion years.
Depending on which of Earth’s lifeforms are included, the current rate of species loss is 100 to 1,000 times higher than only a few hundred years ago, when people began to alter Earth’s chemistry and crowd other creatures out of existence.
Measured by weight, or biomass, wild animals today only account for four per cent of mammals on Earth, with humans (36 per cent) and livestock (60 per cent) making up the rest.
Ten thousand years ago that ratio was probably reversed.
“The statistics are scary,” said Piero Visconti, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and one of 59 co-authors of the 80-page report.
“Unlike population declines, extinctions are irreversible.”
For corals, it may already be too late.
Back-to-back marine heatwaves have already wiped out up to half of the globe’s shallow-water reefs, which support a quarter of all marine life.
Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius – mission impossible, according to some scientists – coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90 per cent.
A 2C world would be a death sentence, a major UN report concluded last month.
Half-a-century of conservation efforts have scored spectacular successes, with significant recoveries among tigers, manatees, grizzly bears, bluefin tuna and bald eagles.
“If we didn’t make those efforts, the situation would have been much worse,” Lambertini said.
But the onslaught of hunting, shrinking habitat, pollution, illegal trade and climate change has been too much to overcome, he acknowledged.
“Scientists call it the ‘great acceleration’,” he said in a phone interview.
“It is the exponential growth over the last 50 years in the use of energy, water, timber, fish, food, fertiliser, pesticides, minerals, plastics – everything.”
The pace of population increase – long taboo in development and conservation circles – also took off around 1950, the date scientists have chosen as the “gold spike,” or starting point, for a new geological period dubbed the Anthropocene, or “age of man”.