Life Plan Index Predicts Loss of Two-Thirds of Animals by 2020

A new fire report by two major conservation groups predicts dire circumstances for the world’s wildlife, warning that two-thirds of vertebrate populations could be exterminated by 2020, based on 1970 population levels.

The new report, called the Living Planet Index, was prepared by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the London Zoological Society. The index found that animal populations fell by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, largely as a result of human activities, from poaching to habitat loss and pollution.

The team then extrapolated those trends forward to 2020. They based their analysis on data collected in the field on more than 14,000 vertebrate populations, from 3,700 different species. The data came from many sources, from all over the world.

The researchers concluded that lakes and rivers saw the sharpest declines in resident animals. Groups that have been particularly ill include marine mammals, fish, and some birds (especially vultures).

We must “act now to reform our food and energy systems and fulfill global commitments on tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development,” the report begins.

“Global biodiversity is declining alarmingly, and risking the survival of other species and our own future,” warns the index.

But wait, says National Geographic researcher and conservative scientist Stuart Pimm of Duke University, who did not participate in the report.

“Trying to take all those different data sets, from all over the world, and put that into a blender and try to separate that into one number, is irresponsible,” says Pimm. “That’s minor and not helpful.”

Pimm says there is far too much variability between different regions, from land to sea, and too much uncertainty to predict a terrible crash of all species. Furthermore, the report “depresses people endlessly, and suggests that there is no hope,” he says.

“But there’s a lot of hope around the world,” Pimm adds.

He points to the recent successes in preventing the decline of lions, tigers and other large cats across Africa and Asia, some of which have been led by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, on which Pimm is working.

As another example, a recent study found that coral reefs actually feel better, and are more resistant to warming seas and acidification than scientists thought.

Although environmentalists face many challenges to protect endangered species and their habitat, the real issues they face are more diverse and subtle than just one index can convey, says Pimm.

Such reports may be more about trying to capture attention and raise money than healthy science, he says.

Conservative biologist Luke Dollar, who heads National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, says he agrees with Pimm’s assessment of the Living Planet Index. “That said, there is no question that a large number of populations of countless species are declining, and will continue to require ever-increasing efforts to prevent their loss and protect the systems of which they are a part,” says Dollar.

“The need for self-awareness and entrepreneurial resources to mitigate our growing impact on wildlife has also never been greater,” says Dollar.

This story was updated at 18:30 pm ET with comments from Luke Dollar.