Rampant wildlife destruction poses threat to humans

Loss of three-fifths of living creatures since 1970 destroying our ‘life-support system’

Fish and plastic pollution in sea

The extent to which humans are destroying wildlife – and ourselves – has been laid bare in a new report. Since 1970, 60 per cent of animals have been wiped off the face of the Earth, with farming and our appetite for meat primarily to blame. Scientists believe the catastrophic loss has significant consequences for human life.

The Living Planet Index, produced for the conservation organisation WWF by the Zoological Society of London, reveals that the global population’s land grab for food and resources has consigned vast numbers of creatures to oblivion over the past half century. The destruction of natural habitats is the main reason for the staggering decline in wildlife. With just a quarter of the planet unaffected by human activity, creating farmland to raise livestock and grow food has been a significant contributor to that destruction.

The next biggest reason for wildlife loss is our appetite for meat, fish and animal products, with oceans overfished and 300 species of animal at risk of extinction because of overconsumption. Other anthropogenic – human-caused – issues to have played a role in decimating wildlife include the introduction of invasive species and disease via global trade, and chemical pollutants on land and sea. Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said: “We can no longer ignore the impact of current unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles.”

We should all be concerned that we way we live is inimical to the survival of other creatures, because wildlife plays a vital role in creating the ecosystem upon which humans depend for existence. As a result, according to Mike Barrett, WWF’s executive director of science and conservation: “We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff.”

He added: “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. This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

A team of 59 international scientists contributed to the report, which looked at data for almost 17,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians between 1970 and 2014. Populations fell by an average of 60 per cent over that time, and this despite increasing awareness in recent years of the huge stresses being put on the natural world. A report in June revealed that, since the dawn of civilisation, humans have destroyed more than four-fifths of wild mammals despite representing just 0.01 per cent of life on Earth.

In 2020, a meeting of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity will seek to forge new commitments to protect the natural world, but, like the Paris Climate Agreement, signed by 195 countries in 2016, it remains to be seen whether the world will follow words with action. As Tanya Steele, WWF’s chief executive, observed: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.”

Read the Living Planet Index