Nature is "unraveling" at a rate not seen for millions of years. That's according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund, which finds wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 68% since 1970. In Latin America and the Caribbean, populations have fallen by an average of 94%. The numbers hail from an analysis of 4,392 animal species that were monitored from 1970 to 2016. "We destroy the planet at our peril," says WWF-US President Carter Roberts, noting that by devastating wildlife species and "exacerbating climate change," humans are also "increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases [meaning ones transmitted to humans from animals] like Covid-19." The report places the blame on humans for our current state, noting we have altered three-quarters of the planet's ice-free land surface. That destruction of habitats, introduction of non-native species, and overexploitation of wildlife has been in support of a what the report sees as an unsustainable food system.
Freshwater biodiversity is experiencing the most dramatic decline, with populations of freshwater species falling by an average of 4% each year since 1970. This is largely "because of the use of freshwater resources for producing food to feed a growing population of people worldwide," WWF Chief Scientist Rebecca Shaw tells CNN. The report notes humans need to consume less meat as our current consumption habits—which emphasize animal protein and see us wasting 1.4 billion tons of food each year, per the BBC—also trigger deforestation, per NBC News. Through deforestation, "we are opening up more and more tropical forests to the poaching of its animals for sale in a worldwide market" and "exposing ourselves to a dizzying array of new diseases," Shaw says. "Covid-19 is only the beginning." (Read more nature stories.)