Wildlife populations drop by 68 per cent in 50 years

yellow spotted salamander Brian Lasenby/shutterstock

It’s generally accepted in the scientific community that it took something out of this world—an asteroid—to wipe out the dinosaurs. The culprit behind what could become the next great wildlife extinction event already lives here on Earth: human beings. A recent report on wildlife populations by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has concluded that the collective global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians declined by an astonishing 68 percent between 1970 and 2016.

Here in North America, wildlife populations dropped by 33 percent. Hardest hit globally are our neighbours to the south in Latin America and the Caribbean where the declines hit 94 percent. The report cites more than 2,000 species of amphibians in that region along that are at risk of extinction.

Of particular concern for Canadian birders is the fact that most migratory species that breed here migrate south to winter in South and Central America.

As WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini writes in the report’s introduction, “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years…. It is time we answer nature’s SOS.”

While the report makes for depressing reading for anyone who cares about the environment, “It’s not surprising,” says Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). “This is the trend we’ve been seen of a long, slow decline of species.” What concerns Kraus is that unlike with some historic population crashes such the dramatic decline of bald eagles and other birds as a result of the pesticide DDT’s widespread use, once the culprit was addressed, the populations began to recover. “We were able to solve those problems. Now there are multiple threats to multiple species,” says Kraus.

The report cites five key factors causing the decline: habitat loss and degradation, overharvesting for food supplies, invasive species, pollution, and climate change. Universally, habitat loss is the gravest concern, accounting for about half the losses globally, but interestingly, the report also states that while, climate change is projected to become as, or more important in the coming decades.

Kraus says Canada has a unique opportunity to help stem the flow of decline of wildlife populations. “We have large intact landscapes in northern Canada on a scale unlike anything remaining elsewhere in the world,” he says. Unfortunately, the narrow strip of land within 100 km of the U.S. where 80 percent of Canadians live, also happens to be where the vast majority of Canada’s endangered species call home, largely because the natural landscapes they rely on have been plowed over or otherwise compromised.

Since its founding in 1962, the NCC has conserved 14 million hectares (35 million acres) of land across the country, protecting invaluable tracts of forest, tall grass prairie, marshland, and other habitat essential for many species’ survival.

Many of the NCC’s protected properties are open to the public in an effort to foster a greater conservation mindset. “The more we learn about plants and animals, the more connected we are with the natural world around us,” says Kraus.

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