In January 2020, eastern Australia was in peril. Devastating bushfires had been sweeping through much of the region for the last few months, escalated by steep temperatures and high winds. The fires had already burned thousands of homes and more than half of Queensland’s Gondwana World Heritage rainforests. Even worse: an estimated billion-plus number of animals perished, with over 60,000 koalas injured or killed. The numbers of these beloved marsupials had already been dropping significantly, decreasing by more than 50% over the last two decades, accelerated by the effects of climate change, disease, and habitat loss.
By February 2022, Australia’s government officials finally took matters into their own hands, declaring koalas endangered along much of the country’s eastern coast. The listing will make it easier to provide additional protection for the animal. It’s a move that’s been a long time coming.
The importance of biodiversity is no joke. It gives us fresh water, supplies energy, helps with the development of pharmaceuticals, and provides much of the food we eat. The story of eastern Australia’s koalas is just one of many—from South Africa’s at-risk water system to India’s vanishing mangrove forests—that illustrate how the loss of our biodiversity, coupled with a rise in climate change, is negatively affecting both our planet and its people. It’s all covered in World Wildlife Fund’s 2022 Living Planet Report, a biennial comprehensive study measuring the state of the world’s biological diversity and the planet’s overall health. This year, WWF’s science-based flagship publication analyzed nearly 32,000 species populations, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, asking what the main threats are that are facing them and in what ways they are responding to these threats and pressures.
Ready to learn more about what’s threatening our wildlife and the ways that we can take action and help safeguard our planet? Read on.
Right now, over one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. According to the report, much of this threat is directly related to human activities. For example, the Living Planet Report found that more than half of the world’s coral reefs—which are primary indicators of a healthy ocean—are gone, succumbing to pollution, overfishing, and climate change, while every year, we’re losing forests (which help purify air and regulate temperatures) about the size of Portugal.
One of the report’s most significant findings is that there’s been a 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations since 1970—a rate that’s incredibly alarming.
Latin America and the Caribbean together has been the hardest hit region, losing 94% of its biodiversity over the last 50 years. Africa comes in second, with 66% of its biodiversity.
Monitored freshwater populations have also succumbed to a tremendous loss, declining by an average of 83% since 1970 thanks to factors like drought, overuse, and pollution. More than a billion people are already without access to freshwater. As the loss of our water bodies continues, fish populations are diminishing too. This leads to food shortages for the millions of people who rely on these fish to survive.
Not only do we need fresh water for nourishment, but it’s also an essential element in growing crops, manufacturing, energy production, and transport. Healthy water systems also help prevent erosion and provide natural protection from flooding.
Five Key Drivers of Biodiversity Loss
WWF’s 2022 Living Planet Report has found that there are five key drivers in the loss of the world’s biodiversity. They are:
1: Changes in how we use land and water. This includes clearing land for agriculture or to build new housing developments. By breaking up the land and/or destroying it, we fragment the natural habitats of species and essentially take away their homes.
2: Exploitation of organisms. Practices like hunting, logging, farming, and overfishing have a huge negative impact on biodiversity when they’re not done sustainability.
3: Pollution. Over 14 million tons of plastics make their way into our oceans each year. Coupled with things like industrial toxins and aggressive agricultural practices that overuse nitrogen and emit ammonia into the air, our many ecosystems are in peril.
4: Climate change. From the number of increased hurricanes and wildfires that are occurring worldwide to the ways in which changing temperatures affect how species reproduce and migrate, human-aided climate change is ravaging ecosystems across the planet.
5: Invasive non-native species. Whether it’s changes in climate or the overall increase in global travel, invasive species are ending up in areas where they shouldn’t be, spreading diseases and competing with native species over food and land.
While conservation efforts are helping, more action is needed if we’re going to see the diversity of our ecosystems bounce back and thrive.
According to the Living Planet report, nature is one of our biggest allies against the climate crisis. Biodiversity means a healthy dose of nature, but the key to making positive changes is in acknowledging the connection between our ecosystems and climate change.
First, press our leaders to be fearless in their conservation efforts: This past July, the UN General Assembly finally passed a resolution declaring access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. Now we need our representative to advocate for stronger U.S. federal policies and our world leaders to make global and ambitious changes that are science-based and beneficial to biodiversity on all fronts.
What is Already Being Done
From technology to agriculture, the solutions for reversing nature loss are out there. We just need to implement more of them.
Take the Protecting Blue Corridors project, which is attaching satellite tags to hundreds of whales worldwide, tracking them to understand their migratory routes and keep an eye out for possible threats, like shipping lanes. These tags also help scientists study river dolphins in the Amazon, Yangtze, and Indus rivers, large waterways where manmade impediments such as hydroelectric dams can negatively impact their populations. In turn, researchers can then devise ways to help safeguard these aquatic mammals.
Dam removals can reopen pathways for endangered fish, while rewilding agricultural lands can reconnect habitats and allow native species to thrive.
There are also projects like Global Water Watch, a free-to-access platform that provides public information about freshwater sources and allows decision-makers to thoughtfully respond to extreme weather events, like floods and droughts, in the wake of climate change. Or AirSeed Technologies, which utilizes specialized drones—combined with artificial intelligence and patented biotechnology—to reforest areas on a massive scale, planting up to 40,000 seeds per day.
What We Can Do
It’s important to remember that small steps can make big changes.
Engage in sustainable practices such as reducing waste, purchasing sustainable produce, turning off lights not in use, or air-drying laundry. Buy clothes that are recycled or upcycled (an old product given new life), or don’t buy any at all. When you do need to buy something new, invest in companies with good sustainability values, such as Patagonia or Rothy’s.
If you’re anything like me, travel is essential to your well-being. So choose direct flights whenever possible, which utilize significantly less carbon dioxide (CO2) than connecting flights. Trains and buses are even better, though cycling and walking have them all beat.
Eat less meat and/or animal sourced foods, including fish, eggs, and dairy. They generally have a bigger impact on nature and the planet than plant-based foods.
Be thoughtful in your actions. They always make a difference.