Turning the Tide on Declining Wildlife Numbers

Dec 8, 2016

The online wildlife community has recently been buzzing about the most recent results of the Living Planet Index, a study done cooperatively by World Wildlife Foundation and the Zoological Society of London. The LPI examines populations of over 3,000 species of fish, wildlife, and birds around the globe and compares them to actual or estimated population levels from 1970. According to this study, the global population of wildlife has dropped by more than half in that time span, and by 2020 those population levels will be one-third of what they were in 1970.

When I first saw the results of this study, I was understandably horrified. This is a comprehensive study, and it identifies hunting, fishing, habitat degradation/loss, and climate change among other contributing causes. I would caution anyone who points to hunting as reducing wildlife populations (at least in the US) that hunters who buy licenses and hunt species according to established seasons and limits carry a significant portion of the financial burden for maintaining wildlife species and improving wildlife habitat. Before anyone starts pointing fingers at who has killed animals and why, it is important to examine some of the findings in greater detail.

There are obviously more than three or four thousand wildlife species around the world. How would you decide to choose which species to study? First, you would probably decide you need to divide it appropriately between water, land, and air. Then, you would want to see which animals you could effectively and accurately estimate or model the numbers of individuals in that species. Naturally, you would also want to make sure you had a reliable population estimate for that species from 1970. That timeframe was notable because it was when the groundwork was being laid for the development and passage of the Endangered Species Act in the United States, so it stands to reason that endangered species would suit their needs well for this study. The other wildlife species that fit those three criteria? Species that are legally managed for hunting or fishing have had accurate individual population estimates since the middle of the last century. If you look at a cross section of endangered species populations and game fish, large and small game animal population you will see in general a rise in numbers. When you look into the details of the index, in fact nations like the US have seen a net gain in individual wildlife populations.

The study in fact points to losses in poorer developing countries. For example, overall populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in Latin America (from Mexico south to Central America and throughout most of South America) fell 83%. These countries cut and burn forests to plant fields to feed ever-expanding human populations or to construct buildings to house them. They rarely have the sanitation advancements and treatment options we have here, so rivers fill with garbage and excrement. Furthermore, developing countries need power, so turbine dams are built across these rivers. Humans also need water for consumption, sanitation, and crops, so reservoirs are constructed and water saved or diverted for these uses. Rivers and freshwater systems around the planet saw the greatest declines of any wildlife habitat, with a 70% loss since 1970.

This study is an index, a canary in a coal mine as it were.   It tells us one version of the current situation, and predicts one possible future. We here in the United States have little to celebrate while we contribute to the degradation of wildlife habitat at home and abroad. We need to think about buying sustainably sourced wood products and bird friendly coffee. We need to be aware of the implications of using disposable non-biodegradable products, and think about how much water we use, how we heat our homes, and what kind and amount of fuel we consume in our vehicles. Small adjustments by all of us can help turn the tide on the loss of individual wildlife numbers at home and across the planet.