'Code Red': Global wildlife populations plummet by 69 per cent

Global wildlife populations have plummeted by an average 69 per cent, alarming new analysis by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reveals.

The 14th edition of the charity's biannual Living Planet Report reviewed data collected from 1970 to 2018 by the Zoological Society of London to reach its conclusion.

“Deeply disturbing” is how WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman characterised the findings when he spoke with Yahoo News Australia, ahead of the report's release on Thursday.

A group of orangutans in denuded forest and smoke from fires rises in the background.
WWF-Australia's CEO said the report signalled a "Code Red" for wildlife. Source: Getty

“At 69 per cent and plunging since the 1970s, if you were going for a health check with your doctor this would be Code Red,” he said.

Mr O’Gorman said the findings indicate humanity has “failed to realise nature's fundamental role supporting us" in providing essentials like food, clothing and shelter.

“We have been drawing down on that natural capital at an alarmingly increasing rate, and it's not replenishing,” he said.

“If we were farmers, we’d be eating the seed that we should be keeping back to sow for next season.”

2022 Living Planet Report at a glance

  • Wildlife populations fell by an average of 55 per cent across Asia Pacific

  • Global freshwater populations diminished by an average of 83 per cent

  • Latin America and the Caribbean had the worst result at 94 per cent

  • Land use change is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss

  • Climate change could become the dominant cause of biodiversity loss

Why was Australia singled out in the WWF report?

The 2022 report focused on the impact of climate change, singling out Australia’s east coast, along with polar regions and South Africa as facing the “highest impact probabilities”.

“Impacts include increasing heatwaves and droughts that are driving mass mortality events in trees, birds, bats, and fish,” the report warns.

“A single hot day in 2014 killed more than 45,000 ‘flying fox’ bats in Australia.”

A koala on a tree behind a suburban fence.
WWF has found an average 69 per cent decline in wildlife across the globe. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

The report also notes that Australia was home to the Bramble Cay melomys — the first creature declared extinct due to climate change.

Habitat loss remains the biggest driver of species decline across the world. Last year, Australia was singled out by WWF as the only developed nation which is a deforestation hotspot, with NSW and Queensland of particular concern.

The 2022 Living Planet Report said the east coast of Australia was deemed “a high-priority area for risk mitigation” across all taxonomic groups, in all threat categories.

It noted while Indigenous communities have “successfully taken care of over millennia”, new “dominant societies” have failed to control habitat loss and climate change.

Is Australia’s treatment of wildlife really that bad?

State government-operated timber operations largely avoid federal scrutiny when it comes to clearing of threatened species habitat, and are frequently criticised for destroying the homes of vulnerable wildlife.

To combat this, both the Victorian and Tasmanian governments have severely increased penalties for those who interrupt native forest logging, while NSW has rolled out similar penalties to stop climate protesters.

A logged native forest in Tasmania.
Habitat loss remains the most important driver of wildlife decline. Source: Getty

Yahoo News Australia has reported extensively on the loss of endangered koala habitat across the Gold Coast, and some analysts report even kangaroo numbers declining.

In July, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek released the State of the Environment Report, warning the country’s environment was in a state of “crisis”.

She has promised to review threatened species protections by the end of 2022 and has released a 10-year Action Plan that comes with a commitment to preventing future extinctions.

Mr O’Gorman said WWF’s Living Planet Report essentially “confirms what we already know”. Tellingly, the 69 per cent average decline is only one percentage point worse than 2020.

“We need to go beyond just preventing further loss. We don't want to move from a 69 per cent plunge in global wildlife populations this year to 72 per cent in two years time,” Mr O'Gorman said.

“We don't want to keep just tracking the decline, we need to start restoring what was lost.”

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