A new study warns of a global decline in wildlife, painting what the authors call “a more alarming picture” of global species decline than previously thought.
Of the more than 70,000 animal species analyzed by researchers in the recent research published in Biological Reviews, 48 percent were found to have a low count.
“What we’re experiencing right now is the beginning of what we call mass extinction,” said Daniel Pincheira-Donoso, an evolutionary and climate change biologist at Queen’s University Belfast and lead author of the study.
Most conservation estimates only measure whether species are at risk of extinction, but this study is helping to understand where species are headed – only 3 percent of the species examined were found to be on the rise.
The report adds further evidence to a growth anxiety because of people the great endincluding 2019 United Nations report found that more than half a million species are at risk of extinction in the next few decades.
Experts warn that urgent action is needed to change the situation, and suggest a way to make it happen.
A new measurement method
The risk of extinction of wildlife is measured by “conservation groups” that indicate whether a species is at risk of extinction, says Pincheira-Donoso.
Instead of using traditional classifications, Pincheira-Donoso and her team chose to look at population trends to determine whether a species’ population is increasing, decreasing, stable or unknown.
“Instead of providing a snapshot of how organisms are doing now, they provide a snapshot in time,” he said.
Although Pincheira-Donoso’s research found that almost half of the species studied are declining, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s. Red List they only put 28 percent of biodiversity at risk right now.
The Queen’s biologist also found that 33 per cent of species listed as non-threatened on the Red List are in serious decline.
“We may have species today that are classified as safe, not dangerous. But if they are declining, we can expect that in the future they will be close to the danger of extinction,” he said.
Of the six groups of animals that were studied – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects – reptiles and fish were found to have the most stable populations while amphibians were found to be declining the most.
Only three percent of all species analyzed were found to be increasing.
Christina Davy, an assistant professor at Carleton University whose research lab looks at endangered species in Canada, says the study fills “a very important gap,” by showing that species are declining even in their protected group.
“Species need to decline too quickly to start a list of threatened, endangered or threatened,” he said.
“It is possible for species to decline slowly without triggering those processes and not reaching that limit.”
A large amount of our money
Observing how things are increasing can lead to better biodiversity management, says Davy.
“A lot of times we end up chasing things that are very dangerous – species that are on the verge of extinction,” he said, adding that in Canada, some species that are declining but not threatened may not be getting the attention they need.
For example, Davy says a focus on restoring the endangered scarlet ammannia plant could help a small portion of Canada’s wetlands.
But restoring habitat for iconic species like the loggerhead turtle — which is declining but not considered endangered — could help many wetlands.
“If we were to preserve wetlands across Ontario, for example, to protect the Canadian tortoise population, that would also benefit endangered wetland species like the scarlet ammannia,” he said.
As Davy says, protecting native species can lead to “an explosion of our income.”
Turning the tide
Although climate change threatens biodiversity, Pincheira-Donoso says the main driver is the loss of habitat due to the conversion of natural habitats into places for human activities – such as city building, agriculture and roads.
“When it comes to the current biodiversity crisis, the biggest biodiversity crisis is habitat destruction,” said Pincheira-Donoso.
David Cooper, secretary general of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agrees that land use is a major problem for biodiversity.
“The number of species – especially the species on this planet, especially large animal species such as mammals – has been greatly reduced because people, agricultural practices and livestock are taking up so much land,” he said.
Cooper writes about Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – the international agreement established at the 2022 COP-15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal and aimed at addressing the problem of biodiversity – established solutions to these problems.
“So we need protected areas, but we need well-protected areas and we need this in planning the whole area and the whole lake,” he said.
Cooper says the Kunming-Montreal Framework sets goals for restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and combating over-consumption, pollution, and invasive species.
Lea Randall, interim director of conservation projects at the Calgary-based conservation organization Wilder Institute, says her organization is focusing on a more sustainable approach.
“Trying to restore the place or make sure that the place you’re taking them out of is stable enough to support these people is important,” he said.
He realizes that until 70 percent of the wetlands have been lost in some parts of Canada and restoring natural habitats for the benefit of one species can have benefits for other species that also use the habitat, he explains.
Humans depend on biodiversity, which is why it is so important to prioritize conservation efforts, Cooper explains.
“A large part of our crops – especially nutritious ones – depends on animal pollination. The decrease in abundance and the decrease in the diversity of these species reduces the production of many agricultural crops,” he said.
“We depend on nature, we depend on biodiversity, but we also depend on the abundance of these species.”