Social 7 November 2018 | 17:27

We’ve not actually killed 60 per cent of all the animals, yet…  

07 November 2018 17:27

Social media briefly transformed into a super-charged orgy of anguish this week, when the World Wildlife Fund For Nature published their Living Planet Report, which looked at the decline in wildlife populations around the world.

As we humans are generally a selfish bunch – with our penchant for deforestation, fossil fuels, palm oil, and overpopulating the planet – unsurprisingly, it didn’t make for good reading. Despite the fact that we insist on continuing to use plastic to package everything, including all the meat we eat, everyone got a bit upset when the Guardian ran a headline that read, ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970’.

The piece, written by the paper’s environment editor, Damian Carrington, was understandably shared by over 300,000 people on social media, because it was a legitimately shocking statement. ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970,’ he wrote. ‘Leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.’

Here’s the good news: Carrington’s statements are a bit misleading. Bad news: the reality is almost as alarming anyway.

There is little doubt that we are killing off the world’s species at a shocking rate, but the findings of the report outline a devastating global decline in the size of animal populations, not animals. Some news outlets gave the impression that we have lost 60 per cent of all the world’s living creatures. That’s not true. The truth, although still startling, is a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.

Continued below.

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Researchers working on the report took their data from the biannual ‘Living Planet Index’, ‘an indicator of the state of global biological diversity, based on trends in vertebrate populations of species from around the world’. Basically, it’s the measure that zoologists use when they want to understand the diversity and quantity of wildlife the world over. Whilst tracking the trends in the Living Planet Index data for this report, researchers noted a sharp decline of 60 per cent in vertebrate populations.

The Living Planet Report concluded that the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 per cent on average. That’s not the same as giving the impression that humans have systematically destroyed over half the world’s animals since the 1970s. In fact, the report categorically states that: ‘It is not a census of all wildlife, but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size.’ So, wildlife populations have declined by 60 per cent since 1970, but that doesn’t mean we have ‘wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles’ since then.

The researchers who originally devised the Living Planet Index did so by utilising data from studies that had estimated the size of various animal ‘populations’ (defined as ‘pockets of individuals from a given species that live in distinct geographical areas’).

The reality of the matter is, however, that unless we dramatically change our whole way of life, the human race is heading for a cataclysmic disaster of biblical proportions. We may not have dispatched 60 percent of the animals, but to be honest we may as well have. Research paper after research paper demonstrates the devastating impact of humanity on the animal kingdom.

Just look at what we did to mammals; we have caused most of the largest species to become extinct. According to one study, the world’s 7.6 billion people have collectively contributed to the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals – despite the fact that we only account for 0.01 percent of all living things. We have failed to protect and maintain the natural environment, which is not only wrong, but also incredibly stupid – it is both responsible for every single human advancement ever and the fact we are still breathing. For now.