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Humans wiping out wildlife at an 'unprecedented' rate, WWF report finds

Agriculture and the illegal wildlife trade are the main drivers as WWF calls on people to eat less meat.
Image: Cattle near a burnt area at Pantanal, in Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil
Agriculture is one of the main causes of global biodiversity and habitat loss, according to a new WWF report. Amanda Perobelli / Reuters file

Humans are wiping out wildlife at a “unprecedented” rate with wildlife populations down by 68 percent on average since 1970, according to a new World Wildlife Fund report published on Thursday.

Unsustainable agriculture and deforestation are two of the main drivers, and urgent action is required to reverse the trend, the Living Planet Report 2020 said.

“Our planet is flashing red warning signs,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, an NGO that focuses on preserving nature.

“From the fish in our oceans and rivers to bees which play a crucial role in our agricultural production, the decline of wildlife affects directly nutrition, food security and the livelihoods of billions of people.”

The situation is most stark in the tropics of Latin American where species have declined on average by 94 percent following massive deforestation and the conversion of wild spaces for agriculture.

Land clearance and deforestation has hit record levels in Brazil in recent years as farmers seek to convert forest and grasslands for agriculture. Cattle grazing and soy farming — mostly used as animal feed for the meat industry — are the primary drivers.

Three quarters of the earth’s non-ice surface have been altered and no longer contain wilderness, the report states, while most of the oceans are now polluted and more than 85 percent of the planet's wetlands have been lost.

The report calls for the world to reform the unsustainable food system, increase protected areas for wildlife and for people in high meat consuming countries — like the U.S. — to shift their diets to a “lower share of animal calories.”

The findings underline the fact that the planet faces twin crises in biodiversity and the climate and the two are intrinsically linked, according to the report. A warming climate puts up to a fifth of all species at risk of extinction in the next century with those in the biodiverse tropics most at risk.

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The seriousness of the climate crisis was further underlined Wednesday as joint U.S. and U.K. studies, published in the Cryosphere Journal, identified how Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier could be at risk from rapid melting after larger than expected warm ocean cavities — that could erode it from underneath — were identified.

Image: The melt rate of West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is an important concern, because this glacier alone is currently responsible for about 1 percent of global sea level rise.
The melting of Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier has increased rapidly over the last 30 years and now accounts for 4 percent of the rise in global sea levels. James Yungel/NASA file

The glacier has been dubbed the “doomsday glacier” due to its enormous size — as large as the state of Florida — and its ability to raise sea levels by over 25 inches alone if it were to suffer rapid collapse.

Historically low sea ice levels allowed the research teams to map the sea bed — from a ship and an airplane — leading them to identify the warm water channels reaching the underside of the glacier.

They found that the ocean is both deeper, and the warm water channels wider, than previously thought.

“For the first time we have a clear view of the pathways along which warm water can reach the underside of the glacier, causing it to melt and contribute to global sea-level rise,” said lead author Dr Kelly Hogan from the British Antarctic Survey.

Ice loss from Thwaites has increased rapidly in the last 30 years and now accounts for 4 pecent of the rise in global sea levels.