Column: Troubling trends in global wildlife populations

The World Wildlife Fund reported this week an alarming decrease in the population size of species around the world.

The World Wildlife Fund released its tenth Living Planet Report 2014 this week and it showed an alarming decrease in the population size of species around the world.

Between 1970 and 2010 the size of populations decreased by a whopping 52 per cent, a much steeper decline than reported in previous years.

The methodology of the Living Planet Index was fine-tuned to more accurately calculate trends in 10,380 populations of 3,038 vertebrate species (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals).

Even more startling was that the population decline in freshwater fish species increased to 76 per cent, a far more rapid decline (39 per cent) than marine and terrestrial species populations.

The most dramatic regional decline was found in South America closely followed by the Asia-Pacific region. But in land-based areas that received protection (as in preserves, reserves and national parks), the population decline averaged 18 per cent, less than half the rate of decline found in the overall study.

While declines are happening in all regions, the decline is greater in the tropics. The report showed that the 6,569 populations of 1,606 species in the temperate region declined by 36 per cent over the 40 year period while the tropical region showed a 56 per cent reduction in 3,811 populations of 1,638 species over the same period. The sharpest marine declines were found in the tropics and the Southern Ocean.

The problem stems from competition for space between humans taking land for urban development, industry, and agriculture, and wild species needing habitat for survival.

By the numbers, population loss is a result of exploitation (37 per cent), habitat degradation/change (31.4 per cent), habitat loss (13.4 per cent), climate change (7.1 per cent), invasive species (5.1 per cent), pollution (four per cent), and disease (two per cent).

The report really underscored the global problem of land demands. “The Ecological Footprint shows that 1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year,” the authors wrote. “For more than 40 years, humanity’s demand has exceeded the planet’s biocapacity – the amount of biologically productive land and sea areas that are available to regenerate these resources. This continuing overshoot is making it more and more difficult to meet the needs of a growing global human population, as well as to leave space for other species.

Adding further complexity is that demand is not evenly distributed, with people in industrialized countries consuming resources and services at a much faster rate.”

Freshwater species are faced with not only habitat loss and fragmentation but pollution and the destructive problems created by invasive species. Shrinking wetlands, disappearing streams, and increasing salinity in lakes because of water extraction for irrigation have resulted in a sharp rise in fish mortality and a corresponding crisis in water availability. Making things more difficult is the fact that demand on water is not evenly distributed, with people in industrialized countries consuming resources and services at a much faster rate.

The water footprint shows the massive volumes of water needed to support human lifestyles, especially agriculture. The global human population will grow but the water it needs for survival will not.

Fixing the complex problems won’t be easy and it won’t be short term. The foundation of WWF’s One Planet Perspective is based on preserving natural capital, producing goods in a sustainable way, consuming more wisely, re-directing financial flows to create urban centres with a lower environmental footprint, and practicing equitable resource governance which means managing cities with vision and forward thinking policies.

The good news is that many cities and smaller communities are already putting these policies into place. Many more must jump onboard.

Failure is not an option.