A WWF report has quantified what conservationists and environmentalists have feared for long. The world lost 58 per cent of its animal population between 1970 and 2012. The report apprehends that the number of wild animals in 2020 will be a third of what it was 50 years ago. The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016 notes that the creatures being lost include well-known endangered species such as elephants, gorillas and vultures and the lesser known ones such as salamanders, snow leopards and corals. The report drew on scientific data on more than 3,700 vertebrate species to produce a measure, akin to the stock index, to analyse the state of the world’s animal species.
Animal populations decline when the habitats and ecosystems that sustain them are imperiled. And, destruction of habitats does not threaten wildlife and plants alone. We depend upon healthy and diverse natural systems for the regulation and purification of water and air, climatic conditions, pollination and seed dispersal and control of pests and diseases. It’s now well-known that the destruction of wetlands has significantly compromised our capacity to resist floods and cyclones. The denudation of forests in hills makes us vulnerable to landslides and even earthquakes.
Responding to risks at the planetary scale will be vastly more challenging than anything we have dealt with before. For example, the most significant cause for the plummeting animal numbers is the destruction of habitats to make way for agriculture. The WWF report notes that we need 1.6 times the Earth’s area to sustain the world’s animal and human population at the current level of consumption. However, a somewhat different picture emerges if we counterpose this report with analysis of food wastage. A FAO report of last year, for example, estimates that the world wasted 1.3 billion tonnes of food in 2014. Nearly 1.4 billion hectares of land, roughly 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural area, is used annually to produce the food that is wasted, the FAO report estimated. The food wastage owes to inadequate storage facilities in the developing world. In the developed world it is a fallout of abominable retail and consumer practices. That all this takes place while hunger stalks people in developing countries makes the situation even more tragic. Even as the consequences of human pressure on the environment have been increasingly acknowledged, society is yet to frame a rational response that factors in ecology and economy. Climate commitments under the Paris climate accord that will kick in in 2020 could be the first such response. It remains to be seen if they can avert the wildlife loss apprehended by the WWF report.