Wildlife populations have dropped by an average of 58 percent since 1970, finds a new study released on Thursday by the conservation group WWF.
Researchers say the trend is global: Brazilian maned wolves, Tanzanian elephants, North American salamanders, and orcas in European waters have all suffered losses. The new report, published by WWF in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, was released Thursday.
"For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife," said Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK. "We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us."
Human activity has contributed significantly to the declines, researchers say. As the global human population continues to grow, overfishing and habitat destruction have followed.
"Human behavior continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats," Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London, told the Associated Press. "Importantly, however, these are declines – they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations."
Earlier this year, geologists called for a new epoch – the Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans” – to be formally recognized. Humanity’s profound impact on Earth, they argued, should mark a new segment of geological time. The value of the term is largely cultural, say observers, as it could inspire a change in thought about our relationship with the planet and its resources.
"I don't speak at all about doom and gloom," Deon Nel, WWF global conservation director, told Reuters. "We do see a lot of positive signs."
The newly-ratified Paris climate agreement could help prevent animal population loss, researchers say. By limiting carbon emissions, UN member nations could slow ocean acidification and the spread of deserts. The UN is also pushing to implement a new plan for sustainable development by 2030.
On Monday, an appeals court panel ruled that a population of bearded seals could secure endangered species protections based on climate change projections, despite not currently facing extinction. This preemptive approach to conservation has been lauded as historic.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Zhai Yun Tan reported:
Only one other species – polar bears – had been awarded the endangered species status based on climate projections, in 2008. The legal battle for bearded seals is similar to the one wrought for polar bears, and there may be more to come, some experts say, especially with other species of seals. Previous studies have also found that birds and some other animals are similarly threatened by climate change due to loss of habitat.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.