Global biodiversity is in steep decline, the World Wildlife Fund has warned in its flagship Living Planet Report 2020. The numbers of mammals, birds, fish, plants and insects have fallen an average of 68% from 1970 to 2016, which is more two thirds in less than 50 years.

Humans are destroying nature at a rate never seen before, and the slide shows no signs of slowing, the report said.

“Biodiversity is fundamental to human life on earth, and the evidence is unequivocal – it is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history,” said the World Wildlife Fund report published once every two years. “Since the industrial revolution, human activities have increasingly destroyed and degraded forests, grasslands, wetlands and other important ecosystems, threatening human well-being.”

About 75% of the earth’s ice-free land surface has already been significantly altered, most of the oceans are polluted and more than 85% of the area of wetlands has been lost, the report showed.

“The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits,” said Marco Lambertini, director general, World Wildlife Fund International. “Covid-19 is a clear manifestation of our broken relationship with nature.”

The Living Planet Report is based on data from the Living Planet Index produced by the Zoological Society of London. The index is statistically created from journal studies, online databases and government reports for 20,000 populations of 4,200 species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish, or approximately 6% of the world’s vertebrate species.

Where and how food is produced is one of the biggest human threat to biodiversity and ecosystems. Graphic from the Living Planet 2020 report.

Alarming decline

“The Living Planet Index is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity,” said Andrew Terry, director of conservation at Zoological Society of London. “An average decline of 68% in the past 50 years is catastrophic and clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world.”

“If nothing changes, species populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we all depend,” Andrew Terry.

The rate of decline is not uniform. The Freshwater Living Planet Index shows that freshwater biodiversity is declining far faster than that in oceans or forests, with an alarming 84% decline in freshwater species, which is equivalent to 4% per year since 1970.

In the tropical sub-regions of the Americas, there is a catastrophic 94% decline, the largest fall observed in any part of the world in the past 50 years.

Land conversion for agriculture has caused 70% of global biodiversity loss and half of all tree cover loss, and of the total amount of water withdrawn from available freshwater resources, 75% is used for crops or livestock.

Since 2000, 1.9 million sq km of previously wild and undeveloped land – an area the size of Mexico – has been lost through conversion, mostly in tropical and subtropical grasslands, savanna and shrubland ecosystems, and Southeast Asian rainforests.

In the marine environment, overfishing in wild capture fisheries is the primary driver of change, with one in three fish stocks overfished. Pollution, coastal development and climate change are also affecting ocean productivity.

India’s situation

India’s ecological footprint, according to the index, is lower than 1.6 global hectares per person, which is the lowest bracket and is smaller than that of many large countries. However, its high population levels make it likely for the country to face a widening ecological deficit even if current per-capita levels of resource consumption remain the same.

India is a highly biodiverse country, holding over 45,000 species of plants in only 2.4% of the world’s land area. Over 12% of wild mammal species are threatened with extinction in the country.

Larger animals, particularly in freshwater habitats, are in greater danger of extinction, the report said. These include river dolphins found in India, giant catfish in the Mekong, otters and beavers, among others.

The arboreal Lion-tailed Macaque, endemic to the Western Ghats in India, is endangered because its forest habitats have become fragmented. Photo by Nagaraj Papanna.

In India, 3% of bird species face extinction, with the number increasing every year. As many as 19% of amphibians are threatened or critically endangered. Bee colonies are also collapsing drastically across the country.

“We are heading to a point of no return,” said Sejal Worah, director of programmes at World Wildlife Fund India.

Based on new research by a global group of scientists, published in Nature journal on September 10, the Living Planet report calls for action to halt and reverse the downward spiral of wildlife loss. The research shows that things can be turned around if ambitious conservation efforts to protect wildlife are combined with stopping habitat loss and deforestation.

It means transformative changes in farming and how we produce food, tackling the more than 30% food that is currently wasted, and working to restore damaged habitats and landscapes.

Bending the curve

Known as the Bending the Curve Initiative, this research has developed pioneering modelling, providing a proof of concept that terrestrial biodiversity loss from land-use change can be halted and reversed.

“This study shows the world may still be able to stabilise and reverse the loss of nature. But to have any chance of doing that as early as 2030, we will need to make transformational changes in the way we produce and consume food, as well as bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts,” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at World Wide Fund United Kingdom and a co-author of the study.

“The Anthropocene could be the moment we achieve a balance with the rest of the natural world and become stewards of our planet,” David Attenborough said in Voices for a Living Planet. “Doing so will require systemic shifts in how we produce food, create energy, manage our oceans and use materials.”

“But above all, it will require a change in perspective,” Attenborough said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.