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Aerial view of Hardy Reef taken on 20 June 2017 to assess if the Heart Reef has been bleached © WWF-Aus / Christian Miller

Aerial view of the Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef © WWF-Aus / Christian Miller

World wildlife populations fall 68%, Australia contributes to decline

10 Sep 2020

Keywords
  • wombats
  • cane toad
  • coral
  • environmental laws
  • quolls
  • sharks
  • coronavirus
WWF's Living Planet Report 2020 reveals global wildlife populations fell by 68%, on average, between 1970 and 2016, while some Australian populations plummeted by up to 97%.

WWF’s flagship report says the causes of this biodiversity loss – deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, and the illegal wildlife trade – are also contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

The Living Planet Index (LPI), provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), uses datasets from nearly 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.

This includes more than 1100 populations in Australia, with almost all showing continual declines.

Habitat destruction, introduced pests, and climate change are taking a heavy toll on Australian species. A snapshot of local entries in the LPI makes for sobering reading:
• The cane toad invasion in the Northern Territory caused the following declines in size of some populations of freshwater crocodiles (77%), goannas (71-97%), and northern quoll (75%).
• In Tasmania, sarcoptic mange, thought to have been introduced to Australia by settlers and their dogs, caused a 94% decline in wombats in Narawntapu National Park.
• In Fitzgerald River National Park in Western Australia, one of Australia’s rarest birds, the ground parrot, has not been heard calling since 2012.

“An average decline of 68% in the past 50 years reinforces that we’re facing an extinction crisis and tragically Australia has played a role in this loss,” said Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.

“A recent review found Australia’s main environment law is ineffective and our current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

“Yet the federal government is rushing through changes to Australia's nature laws that would put wildlife on an even faster path to extinction.

“Australians can help stop our wildlife extinction crisis by urging our leaders to take a stand for our wildlife www.wwf.org.au/endextinction,” he said.

The need for strong action is emphasised by two catastrophic Australian events highlighted in the Living Planet Report 2020: the bushfire crisis which killed or displaced nearly three billion animals and the mass bleaching which destroyed 50% of the Great Barrier Reef’s shallow-water corals.

In addition, Australia’s Bramble Cay melomys features as the first known mammal extinction to be linked directly to climate change. The report says “It will … remain immortalised as a stark reminder that the time to act on climate change is now.”

Mr O’Gorman said there is a way forward.

“The report also shows that with the right conservation effort, with commitment, investment and expertise, species can be brought back from the brink,” he said.

One example of rebound included in the LPI comes from Ashmore Reef in Western Australia. Following the creation of a marine protected area, the relative abundance of the grey reef shark increased by more than 360% between 2004 and 2016.

“The bushfires were a wakeup call to Australians. We must seize this moment. We can regenerate our country, we can recover species, we can tackle climate change and manage our landscapes with sustainable farming. But it’s going to take a long term vision that’s big, bold and innovative,” Mr O’Gorman said.