World facing biggest mass extinction since dinosaurs - with two thirds of animals wiped out in 50 years
The world is facing the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs, with seven in 10 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles wiped out in just 50 years, a new report warns.
The latest Living Planet report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) estimates that by 2020 populations of vertebrates will have fallen by 67 per cent since 1970.
Extinction rates are now running at 100 times their natural level because of deforestation, hunting, pollution, overfishing and climate change.
The largest ever analysis of 14,152 populations of 3,706 species of vertebrates from around the world showed a 58 per cent fall in animals between 1970 and 2012 - with no sign that the average two per cent drop in numbers each year will slow.
"For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife,” said Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK.
“You can see it happening all around. I haven’t seen a living wild hedgehog in the British countryside for years, and you used to see them all the time.
“People, business and the government need to act now to make the world more sustainable. We have an intergenerational responsibility.
“But we can stop this. While on the one hand we’re the first species to change the planet, we’ve also never had a better understanding of how environmental systems work and how forests, oceans and climate all interact.
“It’s a matter of will. I hope this report is sufficiently worrying to spur people and governments into the action that is needed.”
The report's authors looked forward to the date of 2020 because that was the target set by the United Nations to halt biodiversity loss. But the researchers say that that almost certainly will not be met and argue that the world is facing its sixth mass extinction in its history, where 90 per cent of animals could be lost.
Populations that have been impacted by human activity include African elephants in Tanzania, which have seen numbers crash due to poaching; maned wolves in Brazil, which are threatened by grasslands being turned into farmland; and European eels have declined due to disease, over-fishing and changes to their river habitats.
Wildlife is also being hit by climate change, pollution, and over-exploitation of natural resources, the report warned. By 2012, the equivalent of 1.6 Earths were needed to provide the resources and services humanity consumes each year.
The report also adds more weight to calls for a new geological epoch to be created which recognises humanity’s impact on the planet. The International Union of Geological Sciences is currently deciding whether to approve the term Anthropocene to take over from the current Holocene.
Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said: “We are entering a new era in Earth’s history, the Anthropocene, an era in which humans rather than natural forces are the primary drivers of planetary change.
“Across land, freshwater and the oceans, human activities are forcing species populations and natural systems to the edge.
“We completely depend on nature, for the quality of the air we breathe, water we drink, climate stability, the food and materials we use and the economy we rely on, and not least, for our health, inspiration and happiness.
“But we can also redefine our relationship with our planet, from a wasteful, unsustainable and predatory one, to one where people and nature can coexist in harmony. We have the tools to fix this problem.”
While wildlife continues to decline on average, species that depend on certain habitats have seen some improvements in recent years, the report revealed.
Grassland species have increased slightly since 2004, which the report puts down to conservation efforts for some mammals in Africa, though bird populations continued to decline.
The report highlights the success of habitat protection and strict controls on hunting in Europe to help restore populations of wildlife including bears, lynx, wolverines and wolves.
However overall terrestrial species, which are found in habitats ranging from grasslands to forests, have seen populations drop by two-fifths (38 per cent) since 1970.
Freshwater species are faring even worse, with declines of four-fifths (81 per cent) between 1970 and 2012.
Wetland wildlife has seen an increase since 2005, and marine species have been stable since 1988 - although the majority of stocks that contribute most to global fish catches are now either fully fished or overfished, the report warned.
Prof Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL, said: "Human behaviour continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats.
"Importantly, however, these are declines - they are not yet extinctions - and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations."