Vertebrate Decline

Sept. 30, 2014, 8:38 a.m.

The world’s wildlife population is less than half the size it was just four decades ago, with unsustainable human consumption and damage from climate change destroying valuable habitats at a faster rate than previously thought, a new report has warned.

The number of vertebrates, which make up the bulk of Earth’s visible animals, has dived by 52 per cent over the past 40 years. Biodiversity loss has now reached “critical levels”, the report warns.

But some populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have suffered much bigger losses, with fresh water species declining by 76 per cent since 1974, according to the Living Planet Report by the conservation campaign group WWF.

WWF-UK’s chief executive, David Nussbaum, said: “The scale of the destruction highlighted in this report should act as a wake-up call for us all. We all – politicians, business and people – have an interest, and a responsibility, to act to ensure we protect what we all value: a healthy future for both people and nature.”

Humans are cutting down trees more quickly than they can regrow, harvesting more fish than the oceans can restock, pumping water from our rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more carbon than the oceans and forests can absorb, he added.

Professor Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London, said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming.

“This damage is a consequence of the way we choose to live. Although the report shows the situation is critical, there is still hope.”

The overall decline is far worse than previously thought. The last report in WWF’s biennial series in 2012 recorded a 30 per cent drop in the previous four decades.

The disparity is primarily because the latest report  has a much bigger dataset, enabling it to make more accurate estimates, WWF said.

The UK has not experienced such a steep decline in wildlife as large parts of developing countries because the country had already lost much of its biodiversity before the WWF survey began in 1970.

However, chalk streams – found only in the south of England and northern France – are suffering badly from over-extraction of water, the report found. The streams have been further hit by a series of floods and droughts in recent years. The report found that only 26 per cent are healthy enough to support a vibrant ecosystem.

It names the Itchen, Kennet and Upper Lee as being among the most “heavily abstracted” rivers in the UK. The report also finds that farmland birds, such as the grey partridge, have declined significantly in the UK, as have harbour seals in the Orkney Islands.

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