Our planet’s wildlife is in danger. Each year, hundreds of species go extinct.
But those are just the species we know about.
Scientists don’t know exactly how dire the situation is for all life on Earth. Most countries lack national monitoring systems, making it difficult to reach a comprehensive figure. So, it’s difficult to count all wild animals on land and at sea.
That doesn’t mean scientists aren’t giving it a shot.
The Living Planet Index (LPI), a collaboration between the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London, is one of the most ambitious efforts to catalogue all living species, published every two years.
As the New York Times reports, the LPI’s recent numbers, including input from 89 authors around the world, are the source of some confusion and alarm.
From 1970 to 2018, monitored populations of vertebrates declined an average of 69% — more than two-thirds in 48 years.
To be more specific, this number includes only vertebrates: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. While critical, these populations are a small percentage of all life on Earth when adding back in the much larger, and much less studied, invertebrate populations.
That means that wild vertebrate populations have not exactly plummeted by 69% since 1970.
The LPI currently tracks selected populations of 5,320 species, with more added each year as discoveries are validated. This year’s update includes almost 32,000 such populations.
Even as more species are tracked, the LPI data can be confusing. The report’s 69% decline in the populations of vertebrates does not refer to the total number of animals that have died off, but a relative figure of change over time.
“The Living Planet Index is really a contemporary view on the health of the populations that underpin the functioning of nature across the planet,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at WWF and an author of the report.
The authors of the study have offered some hope in the fact that half of the populations in the Living Planet Index are stable or increasing. However, this is no reason to think our planet’s wildlife face no threats. Even without accounting for populations with the most drastic changes, the average descent of these populations remains steep.
“Even after we removed 10% of the complete data set, we still see declines of about 65%,” said Robin Freeman, head of the indicators and assessments unit at the Zoological Society of London and an author of the report.
This concerning trend isn’t getting better, either.
“Year after year, we are not able to start improving the situation, despite major policies,” said Henrique M. Pereira, a professor of conservation biology at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research who was not involved in this year’s report. “At most, we have been able to kind of slow down the declines.”
On land, agricultural development is the top driver of biodiversity loss as forests and other habitats are turned into farmland for cattle or palm oil. The fishing industry meanwhile poses the greatest threats to our oceans.
Climate scientists maintain that global climate change must be limited to 2 degrees Celsius, or better yet 1.5 degrees, or we will experience an unprecedented cascade of biodiversity loss in coming decades.
Everyone needs to play a part in cleaning up our oceans and saving marine wildlife.
This article by Matthew Russell was first published by The Animal Rescue Site. Lead Image: From 1970 to 2018, monitored populations of vertebrates declined an average of 69% PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / ERIC ISSELÉE.
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