Animal numbers on earth have halved in 40 years

Tiger, tiger: Wild numbers have fallen from around 100,000 in 1910 to 3,200 in 2010 © PA

From elephants to eels and dolphins to monkeys, all species are in rapid decline through the destruction of habitat fuelled by human consumption. Is population growth to blame?

Humans are cutting down forests faster than they can regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, and emitting more carbon dioxide than the planet can absorb, according to a new report published this week. And this frenetic activity is having an alarming impact on the world’s wildlife.

As a result of our massive demand on the Earth’s resources, animal populations have more than halved in the last 40 years, declining by an average of 52%, according to the London Zoological Society and the World Wildlife Fund. Freshwater fish species are particularly badly hit, declining by an average of 76%.

New methods used to create a Living Planet Index have made the forecast more accurate than the last one two years ago, and sadly more gloomy.

Populations of forest elephants in central Africa have tumbled, while the destruction of habitat has left hoolock gibbons in Bangladesh and European snakes at serious risk. In the UK, some bird species are declining, with grey partridge numbers halved since 1970.

The report makes clear that the growing human population is mostly to blame. While animal numbers are in decline, the human population has doubled from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.2 billion now, and is on course to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. More mouths to feed mean that we depend on animals and their habitats for food production.

The report ranks nations by the size of their ecological footprint, which calculates the land needed to sustain a single citizen. Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have the worst impact. In fact, if every human on Earth was like the average Qatari, we would require 4.8 planets to sustain ourselves.

The elephant in the room

The conflict between human rights and ecological responsibility is highly contentious, and the problem of population growth is a sensitive issue rarely discussed. It raises uncomfortable and upsetting questions concerning women’s rights, poverty, religion and race, among others. Some experts, like Sir David Attenborough, say that any meaningful biodiversity conservation must take the booming human population into consideration, and our numbers must be brought under control. We cannot simply ignore the issue.

But others argue that this is alarmist, and that it is inhumane to put the conservation of animals before human needs and rights. ‘We can at times seem like Roman emperors, treasuring our cheetahs while our slaves die,’ one columnist wrote this week. We can all make better choices about how we live and what we consume, and our efforts can make a difference — intensive conservation has already rejuvenated tiger populations in Nepal, for example. It does not have to be a simple choice between humans or animals.

You Decide

  1. Should we care more about humans or animals?
  2. Why is population control such a taboo issue?


  1. Design a poster and slogan to raise awareness of the report’s findings in your school and home.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an expert’, choose one of the animals in the report and make a factfile explaining the threat to their survival.

Some People Say...

“Humans are a plague on Earth.’David Attenborough”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care if animal numbers are declining?
It may seem as if your everyday life would not alter much if the Hellbender salamander vanished from the face of the Earth, and it can be easy to dismiss doom and gloom environmental stories either because they are filled with statistics or are too depressing. But bio-diversity, that is maintaining as great a variety as possible of plants and animals, is crucial to maintaining life on this planet.
Is it a hopeless situation?
No, and we can all make a difference just by making simple adjustments to our everyday lives, and being more aware of the issues. Why not make a start by calculating your environmental footprint, found in ‘Become an expert’?

Word Watch

Living planet index
The information was calculated by analysing 10,000 different populations, covering 3,000 species in total. This data was then, for the first time, used to create a representative Living Planet Index, reflecting the state of all 45,000 known vertebrates.
The number of forest elephants has fallen by more than 60 per cent in west and central Africa since 2002, primarily because of poachers hunting them for their ivory.
The biggest declines in animal numbers have been seen in low-income, developing nations, although richer nations are guilty of ‘outsourcing’ wildlife decline by importing food and other products from those countries.
Upsetting questions
Population control would mean telling women, mainly in poor countries where birth rates are higher, how many children they can have. Birth control is also strongly opposed by many world religions.
David Attenborough
The broadcaster and naturalist caused controversy in 2013 when he said that sending aid to countries suffering from famine was ‘barmy’ in the context of global population growth.


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