Wildlife populations face fast, ongoing declines with an average 69% reduction in population sizes across the world, in less than a lifetime

The Living Planet Report (LPR) 2022 shows monitored wildlife populations declined between 1970 and 2018 across all assessed regions – with an average 69% decline in relative abundance globally. This is strengthened by the biggest influx of data collated by ZSL researchers working on the science behind it.

The latest landmark report, led by WWF in collaboration with ZSL (Zoological Society London), lays out how the relative abundance – the rate at which species population sizes are changing – of populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish has fallen on average by 69% between 1970 and 2018. This includes alarming statistics on monitored freshwater populations, which have declined by an average of 83%. 

Based on the Living Planet Index (LPI) – compiled by researchers at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology – this year’s analysis shows that some of the most biodiverse regions in the world such as Latin America and the Caribbean face some of the steepest falls, with an average -94% in relative abundance since 1970. Populations in Africa are also seeing average declines of around 66%. 

Launched today (Thursday 13 October 2022), the 2022 LPR statistics indicate declines are continuing, despite this year’s Living Planet Index pulling on the biggest data set in its 24-year history, with almost 32,000 populations of 5,230 species analysed.

Dr Robin Freeman, Head of Indicators & Assessments Unit at ZSL, said: "Our Living Planet Index continues to show sustained declines in wildlife populations. We now have more data than ever about trends in biodiversity. Across a variety of indicators, it’s clear we are being sent a serious message and urgent action is needed.”

A camera trap picture of a hedgehog scurrying across grass at night

ZSL’s world leading team of researchers spent over a year analysing data from monitored populations and ecosystems across 195 countries to put together the LPI – one of the most comprehensive indicators of the state of nature in the world. To compile 48 years of biodiversity measurements, data has been sourced from scientific papers authored by 1000 + scientists to support the 2022 Living Planet Index analysis. 

In December, there will be a once in a decade opportunity for the world’s biodiversity to take centre stage in international negotiations at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD COP15), in Montreal. ZSL wants to see the UK and other countries adopt and commit to strong, ambitious plans and targets for the recovering of wildlife abundance and is calling for the LPI to be classified as an official headline indicator of global biodiversity status during the negotiations.

Dr Freeman continued: “Governments meeting this December in Montreal have the opportunity to secure the health of species and restore ecosystems, to ensure a future for nature across the globe. ZSL is calling on world leaders to put nature at the heart of all global decision-making at COP 15, by making stronger targets and commitments to reverse biodiversity loss - and urge them to include the LPI as a headline indicator through which to hold these targets to account."

A diver with a school of fish

The Living Planet Report indicates that the main drivers of wildlife population decline are habitat degradation and loss, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution, climate change and disease. Several of these factors played a part in Africa’s 66% fall in its wildlife populations over the period, as well as Asia-Pacific’s average 55% drop. 

LPI project manager, ZSL’s Louise McRae added: “When we talk about relative abundance, we are looking at the average change in animal population sizes over time. This measure is an important indicator of biodiversity. A decline in relative abundance is significant as it impacts the functioning and health of ecosystems, on which all life relies.”

Declines are also seen in the Northern Hemisphere but at a lesser rate, with an average 20% decline in North America, and 18% in Europe and Central Asia.

Louise continued: “We are seeing the starkest declines in the global south and much of this is a result of global resource demands encroaching further and further into habitats and the unsustainable use of species. However, it is important to remember that the baselines from which Europe and North America are starting from are different from those in say Latin America. Much of our wildlife here was displaced and declining long before those in other continents so we are looking at two very different pictures.”

Wildlife populations seeing serious declines in the LPI include the Amazon pink river dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis) with a population in the Mamirauá Reserve in Brazil plummeting by 65% between 1994 and 2016 and the South and Western Australian sea lion pups (Neophoca cinerea) declining by 64% between 1977 and 2019. Oceanic shark and ray populations have also fallen by 71% on average since 1970. 

A few species showed positive trends thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, including loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) whose nests increased by 500% along the coastline of Chrysochou Bay in Cyprus between 1999 and 2015. Using cages to protect turtle nests from foxes and relocating nests from areas which were under heavily disturbed by tourists or too close to the sea, conservationists have seen a positive upward trend.

In the UK, the common crane (Grus grus) became extinct as a breeding bird around 1600 due to hunting and loss of habitat. However, a small breeding population was re-established in Norfolk in 1979 and a reintroduction programme was launched in Somerset in 2010. The total common crane population is now thought to number more than 200 individuals.

Finally, despite years of civil unrest in the region where mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) live, conservation efforts have found success. In the Virunga Mountains along the northern border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, populations of mountain gorillas have grown to 604 individuals in 2015-2016, up from 480 individuals in 2010.

An infographic of the Living Planet Index - behind the science

Dr Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at ZSL concluded: “The Living Planet Index highlights how we have cut away the very foundation of life and the situation continues to worsen. Half of the global economy and billions of people are directly reliant on nature. Preventing further biodiversity loss and restoring vital ecosystems has to be at the top of global agendas to tackle the mounting climate, environmental and public health crises, and the UK should be taking a leading role in this.”

As we enter a landmark season for our planet with international meetings such as the upcoming Conferences of the Parties (COPs) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP27) and Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) putting a much-needed spotlight on the big issues impacting biodiversity, ZSL is calling for world leaders to put nature at the heart of all global decision-making – from rewilding cities to better protections for ecosystems, wildlife and local communities who rely on them.

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