Today, WWF and ZSL released a report that indicated that the planet is on course to see a two-thirds decline in wildlife populations from 1970 levels, by 2020. The Living Planet Report is compiled of data on wildlife population trends from the Living Planet Index, an important indicator of the planet's ecological condition.
Here, scientists Dr Robin Freeman, head of ZSL's Indicators & Assessments Unit, and Louise McRae, lead researcher on the Living Planet Index, explore some of the major findings of the latest Living Planet Report and the questions they raise.
The latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report makes for stark reading. It highlights that we may be entering a new epoch, the Anthropocene, where our human enterprise has had such impact that the effects may continue to be evident in the geological record.
This process of reengineering (incidentally or otherwise) the ecosystems on which we rely is so significant that even within a relatively short period, our impacts are thought to be irreversible.
The Living Planet Report discusses some of these effects in terms of 'planetary boundaries' - an idea proposed by scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University - to define a 'safe operating space' for humanity.
Planetary boundaries are measurable limits which we must stay within to ensure our own well-being. However, within this framework, it is clear that some of these boundaries have already been crossed (climate change, biosphere integrity/biodiversity), and that we are approaching others relentlessly (ocean acidification, water consumption).
Trends in global biodiversity are presented by the Living Planet Index, an indicator based on the changes in sizes of wildlife populations and developed here at ZSL. Our analysis of 14,152 populations of 3,706 vertebrate species estimates that by 2012 wildlife populations had declined by an average of 58% since 1970. This supports the suggestion that the planetary boundary for biodiversity loss has been exceeded.
The most common threat to these populations stems from the impact of human activities on the habitat in which these species live and rely on, through habitat loss and degradation.
The Living Planet Index indicates that many wildlife populations are in decline, some severely so. But it does represent an average decline, with some populations declining less, some increasing and some declining more markedly.
Importantly, these trends do not suggest that we have lost 58% of all species - these numbers represent, in almost every case, enduring species. While the declines we see are deeply disturbing, they do offer some hope. If we are able to identify and remove the key threats to these species, and to find methods to effectively conserve and restore these populations, then these species just may have a chance to recover.
One question which may dominate discussions after the publication of the Living Planet Report is what can be done about the decline in global biodiversity. ZSL are holding events over the coming month to discuss this issue.
Focussing on a common conundrum for individuals who want to know what action they could take to help wildlife, the first event is a debate on the 15th November 'Can I protect the planet? How our daily decisions impact global biodiversity decline'.
Then on the 29th November, we are holding a Symposium to discuss the main threats to the populations within the Living Planet Index and how they might be tackled: 'The Living Planet Report 2016: threats, pressures and addressing the challenges'.
These events represent an opportunity to discuss some of the science and conservation issues presented in the report and we hope to see you there.
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