Extinction

Wild Animal Populations Down 60 Percent Since 1970

But economic growth will reverse this trend by sparing lots more land for nature during this century.

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BiodiversityRobertAdrianHillmanDreamstime
Robert Adrian Hillman/Dreamstime

Twenty-six million elephants roamed Africa before 1500, according to one estimate. That dropped to around 10 million just before the outbreak of the First World War and now stands at around 350,000 today. Some 200,000 wild lions hunted in Africa a century ago; now only 20,000 do. Between 30-50 million guanacos grazed the South American Pampas before the arrival of Columbus; now 2 million or so do.

In North America, 30 to 60 million bison used to ranged from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. By 1889, there were just 1,091 left. Today, the private and public herds number about 500,000 bison. Before 1500, North America was home to 60 to 400 million beavers; today 10 to 15 million live in the wild.

In 1900, India was home to 20,000 to 40,000 wild tigers. That number had fallen to just over 1,400 by 2006, but has since risen to more than 2,200 in 2014, when the last census was done. In 1800, about 1 million rhinoceroses lived on earth. Today there are fewer than 28,000. (The Chinese government just announced that it will allow the use of rhino horn and tiger parts for cultural and medical purposes.)

The new Living Planet Report amply confirms these anecdotal declines in wildlife abundance and goes further by aggregating data on overall vertebrate species population trends. The 2018 report's Living Planet Index, compiled by the Institute of Zoology and the World Wildlife Fund, measures biodiversity abundance levels based on 16,704 populations of 4,005 vertebrate species across the globe and shows an overall decline of 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. Basically, the number of animals living in the wild—mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians—has declined by 60 percent.

"The main drivers of biodiversity decline continue to be the overexploitation of species, agriculture and land conversion," notes the report. Overexploitation is exemplified by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization's 2018 finding that the percentage of marine fish stocks exploited at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974, to 33.1 percent in 2015.

Declining numbers of wild animals is not a new trend, but it might be reversible.

The historical trajectory of how animal populations have changed over the millennia is captured in a fascinating study on global biomass distribution published last June in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The PNAS study notes that "human activity contributed to the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction between ?50,000 and ?3,000 years ago, which claimed around half of the large (>40 kg) land mammal species." Among the 178 now extinct mammal species are the woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, ground sloths, toxodons, Irish elks, and woolly rhinoceros.

The study estimates that the biomass of wild land mammals measured in gigatonnes (1 billion metric tonnes) of carbon (GtC) prior to the period of extinction was at ? 0.02 GtC. The present-day biomass of wild land mammals is approximately sevenfold lower, at ? 0.003 GtC.

Despite these wild species extinctions and reduced numbers, the biomass of land animals has never been greater. Today, the PNAS study reports, the biomass of livestock (?0.1 GtC) is an order of magnitude larger than that of all the terrestrial wild megafauna before the extinction period. Even the total biomass of humans (?0.05 GtC) is around twice the biomass of all wild megafauna before the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction event.

HumanBiomass
PNAS

Thus in a real sense, "the natural state of the world—to be full of large herbivorous animals and carnivores that eat them—continues to the present day," suggests York University conservation biologist Chris D. Thomas in his riveting book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. Now the herbivores are cows and chickens and we're the carnivores.

As I have written earlier: I mourn the loss of species. Each species embodies complex genetic libraries, behavioral repertoires, and evolutionary histories that are both scientifically fascinating and aesthetically fulfilling. As a relatively well-off First Worlder, I have had the intense pleasure of walking in the wild within 40 feet of grazing rhinos and of swimming with Galápagos penguins. It would be a shame if future generations do not have an opportunity to enjoy such experiences.

There is good news with regard to the Living Planet Report's concerns about land conversion—the amount of land used to grow crops is declining. As a likely result of this trend, a recent study using satellite data found that global tree cover has expanded by more than 7 percent since 1982.

Jesse Ausubel, a researcher at Rockefeller University, calculates that we are on the verge of peak farmland. An area nearly double the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi could be restored to nature by 2060. It is feasible that new production technologies will greatly reduce the amount of land and other resources devoted to crops and livestock even more.

As more people voluntarily move from subsistence agriculture to take advantage of better life opportunities in cities, ever more land will to revert to nature. Signatories to the Convention of Biological Diversity adopted, in 2010, the goal of setting aside at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas for conservation by 2020 (the U.S. has not signed). Since 2000, the amount of land incorporated into protected areas has grown from 11.9 to 15 percent. The area of oceans has increased from 0.7 percent to 7 percent.

Given these trends, there is scope for the expansion of wild nature over the course this century. In my review of Chris Thomas's book, I note that he argues that since ecological change is inevitable, we need to throw aside static notions of restoring local ecosystems to some imagined prehuman Edenic state. "Our aim should be to maintain robust ecosystems (however different from those that exist now or existed in the past) and species, rather than defend an unstable equilibrium," urges Thomas. "We can let change happen."

"We can think about engineering new ecosystems and biological communities into existence, inspired but not constrained by the past," explains Thomas. Employing such strategies also means that "we can protect plants and animals in places where it is feasible to do so, rather than where they came from."

For example, why not "rewild" parts of North America that once contained mammoths, camels, and saber-tooth tigers with ecologically similar species from other parts of the world? Let's loose elephants, lions, cheetahs, camels, and llamas to roam unpopulated regions of the West. In place of the now-extinct woolly rhinoceros and European hippopotamus, why not settle the Sumatran hairy rhinoceros and African hippopotamus in the Camargue wetlands of southern France? Or transplant giant flightless birds—ostriches, rheas, cassowaries—to New Zealand, where they can fill the ecological niches of the giant moas eaten to extinction by the Maoris' Polynesian ancestors?

Three researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society argued in their June BioScience article that humanity is poised to move in this century from an ecological bottleneck to a conservation breakthrough. "For the first time in the Anthropocene, the global demographic and economic trends that have resulted in unprecedented destruction of the environment are now creating the necessary conditions for a possible renaissance of nature," they argue. "Drawing reasonable inferences from current patterns, we can predict that 100 years from now, the Earth could be inhabited by between 6 and 8 billion people, with very few remaining in extreme poverty, most living in towns and cities, and nearly all participating in a technologically driven, interconnected market economy." These fortunate trends, they contend, will result in vast expanses of land and sea being returned to the natural world.

The Living Planet Report is describing the current bottleneck, but the Wildlife Conservation Society researchers marshal strong arguments that we are well on the way toward the breakthrough period that relaxes the current anthropogenic pressures on species and ecosystems, and which will enable nature to recover extensively by the end of this century.

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72 responses to “Wild Animal Populations Down 60 Percent Since 1970

  1. For example, why not “rewild” parts of North America that once contained mammoths, camels, and saber-tooth tigers with ecologically similar species from other parts of the world? Let’s loose elephants, lions, cheetahs, camels, and llamas to roam unpopulated regions of the West.

    How about no, let’s not do that? Maybe llamas wouldn’t be a problem but the rest? Can you not see that they would not stay in these “unpopulated” regions? I put that in quotes because while the population density is low in many places you’d hard pressed to find a region that is both big enough for these animals to range about in that also does not contain any residents at all.

    And the intersection of humans with these large and or predatory animals is not likely to be positive. I know I would not want to have to worry about a saber-toothed tiger coming around looking for my kids or pets or have my fence knocked down by an elephant or mammoth.

    1. To say nothing about how species transplant has worked in Australia.
      Animals are part of ecosystems; remove an animal from one system and insert into another. That’s pretty much the recipe for unforeseen, and unwanted, consequences.

      1. SK: Do you do know that by moving species around, humanity has been actually increasing species diversity in the vast majority of ecosystems? Also, introduced species do cause extinctions among island endemics, they are a very minor cause of extinctions on continents.

        1. Florida has gained far more animal species than it has lost. Celebrate faunal diversity!

          1. Trying to control invasive species is White Supremacy. Kudzu lives matter.

        2. I’m down with it.
          Without the threat of a natural predator to deal with, Man has grown quite soft.

          1. I know I have grown quite soft without cougars roaming around.

    2. Jesus Christ, this claptrap is absolutely inane, even by Bailey standards.

      You would think that a guy who likes to fancy himself a scientist (or least “sciencey”) would have some awareness of the many risks of introducing new species of wild animals into areas and populations they aren’t indigenous to.

      1. Camels, horses, lions, and proboscideans are indigenous to North America.

        1. Yeah, several million years ago. Then they died out.

          1. No, about 15,000 years ago. They died because of humans.

      2. What about mastodons? They used to roam fairly freely and happily back when my great grand pappy came over on the land bridge with them. Can we bring them back? Imagine what a mastodon would look like at a Kansas Jayhawks half time show? Off season the beast could give rides to alumni and others. It’d be a gas.

    3. Yeah, Bailey, if he’s not paraphrasing, has a weird notion of wanting more whether it makes any sense or not. Really bad on the economics of it.

      Yeah, first worlders can walk with rhinos and swim with penguins, but there’s lots of other stuff we can do too. Like feed Africans and East Indians. And efforts to protect rhinos don’t necessarily jive with efforts to feed Africans. It’s not simply having more of the rare creatures we have, but it would be giving up some of the rare creatures we’ve developed too. Making it, at best, morally and aesthetically ambiguous.

      Resurrecting the saber-tooth tiger and letting them loose on the American Southwest might sound romantic, but (even if they survive) don’t be surprised if the compete mountain lions, bobcats, cougars, lynxes, ocelots, leopards, and even wolves and foxes to death or if the native populations of smaller prey mammals evaporate into extinction.

      Enjoy the animals you’ve got.

      1. Hi All: Claptrap? Check out the Pleistocene rewilding proposal – made, you know, by visionary ecologists and conservationists.

        1. So- sort of like Jurassic Park, but instead of being managed by an entrepreneur, there’ll be ecologists and conservationists in charge? Cool! What could possibly go wrong?

          1. I: You are no doubt aware that Jurassic Park is fictional? It’s basically a eco-fable based on outdated mid-20th century ecological thinking.

            1. Yeah, I know. It’s a snark. I’m just surprised at the hubris on display in your provided link, thinking that whole ecosystems can be managed in order to generate a desired outcome. And regarding this:

              “Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators,” said the paper’s lead author, Josh Donlan, a graduate student in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, pointing to the controversy that raged when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. “There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions.

              Clearly, Josh isn’t considering any major attitude shift on his part, but I’m wondering- is he going to be taking precautions against predation for himself and his family, along with others who volunteer to take them on, or will these risks be forced on people who do not want them and did not ask for them? He didn’t say.

              1. is he going to be taking precautions against predation for himself and his family, along with others who volunteer to take them on, or will these risks be forced on people who do not want them and did not ask for them?

                Note that no one is advocating reintroducing lions and tigers to Manhattan.

                1. Right, because it’s “Man”hattan. Not Dangerous Animalhattan.

                  1. You know, you raise an excellent point – shouldn’t it be “Person-hattan?”

                    1. Teach me your secrets to being so woke!

            2. As long as the right TOP MEN are in charge of it, it can’t go wrong! And if the actions of these scientists kill some people, hey, small price to pay to get to see a mammoth or sabertoothed tiger!

              Seriously Ron, for mocking Jurassic Park, you really missed the primary philosophical message completely: The hubris of man.

    4. Oh shut up. In Texas, there are many ranches with exotic animals roaming around. It’s called fences and keeping your kids out of dangerous areas.

      1. Just like they do in South Africa

      2. From the Wildlands Network website:

        Our Vision
        Wildlands Network envisions a world where nature is unbroken, and where humans co-exist in harmony with the land and its wild inhabitants. To bring this vision to fruition, we must restore, reconnect, and rewild North America.
        Only by rewilding and healing the ecological wounds of the land can we learn humility and respect.

        What is Rewilding?
        Rewilding means making our landscapes whole again. Today’s national parks and other protected areas, although critical to conservation, are too small and isolated from one another to support wildlife migrations and dispersals, native plant communities, and services provided by nature?like pollination, carbon storage, and clean water.

        https://wildlandsnetwork.org/our-vision/

        Sounds a bit more substantial than a fenced ranch if national parks are considered too small, but maybe that’s just me.

  2. I suspect lots of liberties with data interpretation is involved in this article’s conclusion.

    1. T: Read the BioScience article and find out for yourself.

  3. So. Darwin was right?

    Maybe we can get some rich dude to start filing lawsuits claiming that the whole EPA thing is ‘establishing’ a religion, because it ignores the science of Darwin? I would pay money to sit in that courtroom. Save a few billion federal tax dollars if he won.

  4. 26 million Elephants i doubt that the continent could support that many. support as in feed not weight

    1. Maybe Africa was Atlantis and it’s only above the sea now that those pesky elephants are dead.

    2. Depends on how far they ranged.

    3. Good thing they were spread out, or Africa could have tipped over like Guam keeps doing.

  5. The PNAS study notes that “human activity contributed to the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction between ?50,000 and ?3,000 years ago, which claimed around half of the large (>40 kg) land mammal species.” Among the 178 now extinct mammal species are the woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, ground sloths, toxodons, Irish elks, and woolly rhinoceros.

    I’m skeptical of this assertion. There seems to be increasingly compelling evidence that a cataclysmic event may have been a more likely cause for the seemingly “instant” (in geologic terms) megafauna extinction. ~12,000 years ago around the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (Younger Dryas).

    Randall Carlson seems to make a lot of sense on this.

    1. l.l: Surely not this Randall Carlson? I will assume you’re trolling.

    2. megafauna

      Off-topic: Megafauna is one of the all-time great words. Right up there with liquid-crystal.

  6. Wild Animal Populations Down 60 Percent Since 1970.

    I guess the author has never been to San Francisco.

  7. Here I fixed the article title for you…

    “Wildlife populations falling massively in shithole countries with no rule of law, developed world not so much.”

    Wildlife conservation is not a problem in developed countries. Stop conflating the problems second world (i.e. socialist)/third world/fourth world countries with everyone else.

    Wildlife populations stabilized decades ago in the US and have been growing since at least the 1980s. The author had to go back to when we had less than 50 states to pull up the bison example. And FYI, the animals would have needed to be greatly reduced in population size to allow for settling by people anyway.

    This is what I hate the most about environmental “reporting”. Somehow this is always portrayed to be something the West has a responsibility for. It isn’t.

    And most of the tigers in India were slaughtered off due to the threat they posed to human populations in the 1900s. Strangely, people really don’t like it when a 1000 pound fast moving predator eats one of their children.

    You want to see real air pollution? Go to Beijing in winter or Delhi in summer. Advanced societies with strong courts, low corruption and free market economies don’t have these problems. Something like 25% of the air pollution in California comes from the east coast of the PRC.

    Is it me or is Reason becoming more like Slate?

    1. P: May I suggest that you read my book, The End of Doom, in which I exhaustively analyze all of the topic you reference. I think you will find my analyses and conclusions copacetic.

      1. Ron,

        As an author who cared to respond to comments on an article they wrote I commend you. You just made a book sale.

        I spent over 20 years of my life in “less developed” countries. As a result, I find first world countries genuflecting at the altar of environmentalism despite the cataclysmic level difference of purity in the environment between their homes and the third world to be insane. Also, as a result of my undergraduate work in engineering, I want to sucker punch anyone who thinks a battery powered car is a good idea.

        I look forward to reading your book.

  8. Wild Animal Populations Down 60 Percent Since 1970

    That can be explained by an equal or greater increase in civilized animal populations.

    1. OM: Well there is a correlation

  9. There is a group in Russia trying to clone a wooly mammoth by combining the DNA with an elephant.

    Forget the possible consequences that is just so cool there is no way not to do it if you could.

  10. I doubt you’ll find any poor farmers in Africa complaining about how there aren’t enough elephants to trample their crops or enough lions to eat their children.

  11. The wolf population is increasing in Europe and the bear population is increasing in New Jersey. This is good news in the eyes of folks who prefer to focus on immigrants who might take their yobs. 😉

  12. The local deer population has exploded. We have even had reports of mountain lions.

    1. Yep .
      And we have plenty of coyotes , bear and elk , too . Not to mention prairie dogs & other burrowers . Haven’t seen any bobcats ( the organic kind ) but some of the barn fowl slaughters are hard to explain by anything else .

  13. How trustworthy are animal population estimates from hundreds/thousands of years ago?

  14. Has anyone fact checked the 60 percent drop since 1970 claim? It doesn’t appear to pass the smell test. Maybe since 1800? How accurate is the data from 50 years ago?

    I remember the 1970s as the peak of environmental disregard and pollution, with air and water getting substantially cleaner since then. I also see predators such as bears, wolves and lions reintroduced across many areas in the US.

    1. Agreed. Feels about as accurate as the 98% consensus on climate change tomfoolery.

      1. As I suspected, the results are being misreported:

        The Atlantic tells the actual story.

        Ultimately, they found that from 1970 to 2014, the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 percent on average. That is absolutely not the same as saying that humans have culled 60 percent of animals?a distinction that the report’s technical supplement explicitly states. “It is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size,” the authors write.

        To understand the distinction, imagine you have three populations: 5,000 lions, 500 tigers, and 50 bears. Four decades later, you have just 4,500 lions, 100 tigers, and five bears (oh my). Those three populations have declined by 10 percent, 80 percent, and 90 percent, respectively?which means an average decline of 60 percent. But the total number of actual animals has gone down from 5,550 to 4,605, which is a decline of just 17 percent.

        1. And this quote from the Reason article is off base:

          The 2018 report’s Living Planet Index, compiled by the Institute of Zoology and the World Wildlife Fund, measures biodiversity abundance levels based on 16,704 populations of 4,005 vertebrate species across the globe and shows an overall decline of 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. Basically, the number of animals living in the wild?mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians?has declined by 60 percent.

          the number of wild animals isn’t down 60 percent, the average distinct animal population is down. Half the populations are increasing and half are declining. If the larger populations are increasing, the total number of animals could be up, or down just a little.

  15. Before 1500, North America was home to 60 to 400 million beavers; today 10 to 15 million live in the wild.

    Some European capitals envy you.

  16. The Chinese government just announced that it will allow the use of rhino horn and tiger parts for cultural and medical purposes.

    A far better way to protect those species would be to legalize the hunting and trade of the heads and penises of collectors and poachers – for cultural and medical and hell recreational purposes. Think outside the box people!!

    In brighter news – Bitcoin apparently makes 2C temp increase near certain – within 20 years. Hell of a job there HODLers

    1. From the link:
      “With the ever-growing devastation created by hazardous climate conditions, humanity is coming to terms with the fact that climate change is as real and personal as it can be,” added Mora.”

      What “devastation”? And I see no accounting for what bitcoin replaces.

      1. Bitcoin would presumably replace Visa/ATM’s and all bank servers (exclude bank branches since loans aren’t going to disappear)

        Currently – Visa processes 1700 transaction/sec (add a lot more for ATM’s) with a max of 24,000 (Visa only) – and the total elec use for the systems (visa and those banks) is 39TwH (roughly Peru)

        Bitcoin processes 7/trans/sec max and the current elec use is 55 TwH (roughly Switzerland)

        Bitcoin may eventually be able to process more transactions – but by design it can NEVER become more energy efficient – and it is currently doubling its elec usage every year (that’ll eventually slow but only cuz transactions costs will eliminate the ability for people to use it).

  17. Given these trends, there is scope for the expansion of wild nature over the course this century.

    No there isn’t. As long as land/resources don’t exist as a separate distinct factor in economics, markets can only consume those resources from the future not produce them for the future.

    Any short-term evidence to the contrary fits into one of only two categories:

    a. A ‘reporting surge’ akin to the phenomenon that reported rapes increase a lot in the short-term once women are allowed to report them.

    b. A ‘species offset’ similar to the biomass BS. Domesticated livestock and ‘preferred species’ may weigh more than the millions of species they replaced but only until something unexpected quickly kills them off in much larger numbers too. See pine beetle which has obliterated tens of thousands of sq miles of limited species Western forest over the last two decades.

  18. Remember the good old days when we used to run in fear of the tyrannosaurus?

    There’s a place in this earth for all Gods creatures, right beside the mashed potatoes.

  19. Hmmm. So what would the human population be if Libertarians had not written the Roe v Wade decision and handed it to the Supreme Court in time for the 1973 ruling? (Assuming no nuclear wars)

    1. You must have really like World War One then.

  20. Maybe off topic: does anyone remember bug covered windscreens? And massive insect clouds around high street lights? Where’d they go?

    1. Still get lots of bugs on the windshield if you drive through the rural southern US in the summer. As far as the insects flying around street lights, I wonder if its because they are not as attracted to the orange sodium vapor lights that are now common. The old white mercury lights used to attract lots of bugs as I recall.

  21. “Signatories to the Convention of Biological Diversity adopted, in 2010, the goal of setting aside at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas for conservation by 2020 (the U.S. has not signed). Since 2000, the amount of land incorporated into protected areas has grown from 11.9 to 15 percent. The area of oceans has increased from 0.7 percent to 7 percent.”

    Pretty sure central planning is no better at distributing land for various uses than it is distributing any other good.
    No, thanks.

  22. Maybe off topic: does anyone remember bug covered windshields? Or massive insect clouds around tall street lights? Where’d they go?

  23. Black bears and great white sharks have made a tremendous comeback in Massachusetts where there was the first fatal shark attack in 80 years last month and bears are now common in outer suburbs along with coyotes.

  24. All of these studies seem to be about humans being the problem and the ultimate solution is for us to go back to living in trees

    1. Congratulations, you broke the code! Show me an environmentalist, and I’ll show you someone that thinks that a few billion people need to be disappeared for the good of the planet.

  25. I think it’s interesting that pigeons in Phoenix AZ, and I’m sure many other locations throughout the country, have done so well in urban areas. They basically live off of what humans do – our architecture, irrigation – and trash.

    1. read the actual report. half of animal populations are increasing.

  26. Wrong, we need that land to house the Homeless, and let them “live off of it”.

  27. Global human polulation control, by whatever means is found acceptable, is the only real solution for preventing ever-declining natural species and wild areas. Humans are no different than other species – in general, they will keep increasing their population until food and other resources run out. If the US and other major food producers have several lean years of crop production, there will be 10’s, if not 100’s of millions of people dying of starvation. We need to wrestle with the problem of human over-population before we not only destroy most other large species but also before nature takes care of the problem for us.

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