The age of extinction
An animal die-off is an existential threat to humanity. Why are we ‘sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff’?
African elephant Vulnerable
African wild dog Endangered
Albacore tuna Near threatened
Amur leopard Critically endangered
Amur tiger Endangered
Asian elephant Endangered
Beluga Near threatened
Bengal tiger Endangered
Bigeye tuna Vulnerable
Black rhino Critically endangered
Black spider monkey Vulnerable
Black-footed ferret Endangered
Blue whale Endangered
Bluefin tuna Endangered
Bornean orangutan Critically endangered
Borneo pygmy elephant Endangered
Cross river gorilla Critically endangered
Eastern lowland gorilla Critically endangered
Fin whale Endangered
Forest elephant Vulnerable
Galápagos penguin Endangered
Ganges river dolphin Endangered
Giant panda Vulnerable
Giant tortoise Vulnerable
Great white shark Vulnerable
Greater one-horned rhino Vulnerable
Greater sage-grouse Near threatened
Green turtle Endangered
Hawksbill turtle Critically endangered
Hector’s dolphin Endangered
Humphead wrasse Endangered
Indian elephant Endangered
Indochinese tiger Endangered
Indus river dolphin Endangered
Irrawaddy dolphin Endangered
Jaguar Near threatened
Javan rhino Critically endangered
Leatherback turtle Vulnerable
Loggerhead turtle Vulnerable
Malayan tiger Critically endangered
Marine iguana Vulnerable
Mountain gorilla Critically endangered
Mountain plover Near threatened
Narwhal Near threatened
North Atlantic right whale Endangered
Olive ridley turtle Vulnerable
Orangutan Critically endangered
Plains bison Near threatened
Polar bear Vulnerable
Red panda Endangered
Saola Critically endangered
Savanna elephant Vulnerable
Sea lions Endangered
Sea turtle Vulnerable
Sei whale Endangered
Snow leopard Vulnerable
South China tiger Critically endangered
Southern rockhopper penguin Vulnerable
Sri Lankan elephant Endangered
Sumatran elephant Critically endangered
Sumatran orangutan Critically endangered
Sumatranrhino Critically endangered
Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading to experts issuing a warning that the annihilation of wildlife is an emergency that threatens civilisation.
The estimate of the massacre is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff,” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
“We are rapidly running out of time,” said Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”
Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species –
Homo sapiens. Other recent analyses have revealed that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation and that, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.
The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.
Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life, said Prof Bob Watson, the current chair of an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity that said in March that the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.
“Nature contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually, as well as through the critical production of food, clean water and energy, and through regulating the Earth’s climate, pollution, pollination and floods,” he said. “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”
The biggest cause of wildlife losses is the destruction of habitats, much of it to create farmland. Three-quarters of all land on Earth is now significantly affected by human activities. Killing for food is the next biggest cause – 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction – while the oceans are hugely overfished.
The worst affected region is South and Central America, which has seen an 89% drop in vertebrate populations, largely driven by the felling of vast areas of wildlife-rich forest. In the tropical savannah called cerrado, an area the size of Greater London is cleared every two months, said Barrett.
The habitats suffering the greatest damage are rivers and lakes, where wildlife populations have fallen 83%, due to the thirst of agriculture and the large number of dams. “Again there is this direct link between the food system and the depletion of wildlife,” said Barrett. Eating less meat is an essential part of reversing losses, he said.
Meanwhile, ahead of an international conference to discuss the collapse of ecosystems, the UN’s biodiversity chief warned that if a new deal for nature wasn’t agreed in the next two years, humanity could be the first species to document our own extinction.
Cristiana Pașca Palmer said people in all countries need to put pressure on their governments to draw up ambitious global targets by 2020 to protect the flora and fauna that
are vital for global food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.
“The loss of biodiversity is a silent killer,” she said. “It’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.”
Palmer is executive director of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Its 196 member states will meet in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, this month to start discussions on a new framework for managing the world’s ecosystems and wildlife. This will kick off two years of negotiations, which Pașca Palmer hopes will culminate in an ambitious global deal at the next conference in Beijing in 2020. Despite the weak government response to such an existential threat, she said her optimism about what she called “the infrastructure of life” was undimmed.
One cause for hope was a convergence of scientific concerns. Last month, the UN’s top climate and biodiversity institutions and scientists held their first joint meeting. They found that nature-based solutions – such as forest protection, tree planting, land restoration and soil management – could absorb up to a third of the emissions needed to keep global warming within the Paris agreement parameters. In future the two UN arms of climate and biodiversity should issue joint assessments. “There is a lot of goodwill,” she said. “We should be aware of the dangers but not paralysed by inaction. It’s still in our hands but the window for action is narrowing. We need higher levels of political and citizen will to support nature.”
Habitat loss An orangutan in Indonesia
Shaded areas show the statistical uncertainty surrounding the trend
Water scarcity A gharial in India. Thirsty agriculture competes with wildlife