Five things you need to know about our living planet in 2018

The WWF has published its biennial report on the state of life on Earth and the threats to it. Digging into the data, we highlight what you need know about the state of the planet's animals.

In the 12th edition of the World Wide Fund for Nature's biennial publication, the Living Planet Report 2018, the environmental organization unpacks its latest findings on the world's biodiversity. WWF used a dataset, called the Living Planet Index, to track 16,704 populations of more than 4,000 species from 1970 to 2014.

Nature and Environment | 02.10.2018

This report takes a closer look at population sizes (as opposed to the total number of species) and examines their change over time. It also delves into the ways humans depend on biodiversity, from medicine to food production to protection against storms.

Here are five major takeaways from the report:

1. Species' populations are in decline — and it's due to us

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In total, the populations of vertebrates, or animals with a skeleton, have declined 60 percent since 1970.

Nature and Environment | 02.08.2018

Populations living in freshwater habitats (and especially freshwater fish) have crashed, with an average population loss of 83 percent due to dams, invasive species, overfishing, pollution, disease and other factors.

Populations across the South and Central American tropics have suffered the largest declines of 89 percent on average. One cause is mass deforestation in such areas.

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Brazil's Amazon continues to get deforested

Human consumption is driving overexploitation and agriculture, which remain the biggest threats to biodiversity. Since 1500, agriculture and human overexploitation of animals has caused 75 percent of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant extinction.

Considering our ecological footprint, WWF shows that our consumption exceeds the resources we have to replenish what we take from the land and seas.

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This leads to our second point ...

2. Habitats are shrinking

Our consumption habits require a lot from the Earth's surface — the same place that serves as home for animal and plant species. While grazing land, forest products, fishing grounds and cropland make up a large part of our ecological footprint, most comes from burning fossil fuels. That makes up two-thirds of our ecological footprint, whereas the land our cities and towns take up is the smallest piece.

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Infografik Wir verbrauchen zu viele Ressourcen EN

Read more: Earth Overshoot Day: Time for a radical rethink

According to United Nations' Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, only a quarter of the world's land is in its natural state. The group estimated that this will shrink to less than 10 percent by 2050.

Of world regions, the Caribbean witnessed the greatest habitat loss, of more than 60 percent.

Wetlands were the most affected type of habitat around the globe, having decreased 87 percent. A mix of factors impact wetlands, including people building over them, pollution, invasive species and climate change.

3. There's something in the soil

Did you know that one-quarter of life on Earth inhabits the soil beneath our feet? Underground organisms are a fundamental part of the makeup of soils. They take carbon out of the air and help plants absorb nutrients.

Read more: Soil — more than just dirt

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Soils hold more life than you might imagine

This biodiversity underground faces threats just like other species. Risks to these creatures include pollution, over-fertilization, fire, overgrazing, soil erosion, climate change and desertification.

Read more: Five of the world's biggest environmental problems

The newly published Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas maps out for the first time potential threats these creatures face.

4. Valuable nature

Nature provides us with services worth $125 trillion (€110 trillion) every year. That includes protection coral reefs provide against storm surges and waves, carbon sequestered by mangroves, pollination by animals and the benefits of medicinal plants.

Read more: South Africa: Finding a remedy to save medicinal plants

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Pollinators provide 'ecological services' to humans worth billions

Pollinators are a focal point of the Living Planet Report. It notes that they account for $235 billion to $577 billion in crop production every year. Beyond 20,000 species of bees, other insects like moths, butterflies, wasps, flies and beetles also help pollinate plants, as do some birds and bats.

Pollinators face threats from pesticide use and changing land use due to urban and agricultural expansion. These important animals pollinate more than one-third of the crops we depend on.

Read more: Insects perish at the frontlines of humans' war with nature

5. WWF gives us 24 months

With its eyes set on 2020, the World Wildlife Fund sees the next two years as crucial for changing how we humans use the Earth's resources.

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Can we learn to live with nature instead of simply using it up?

"Without a dramatic move beyond 'business as usual,' the current severe decline of the natural systems that support modern societies will continue — with serious consequences for nature and people," WWF says in the report.

The year 2020 marks key international events, such a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity and due dates for some environmental targets for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

The Living Planet Report points out that many of the Convention on Biological Diversity's targets for 2010 to 2020 are unlikely to be achieved. However, it says the 2050 goals will need to be more ambitious in order to recover biodiversity.

Many species' survival may depend on such ambitions.

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Hope for mountain gorillas

Let's start with the good news. According to the latest Red List update, the number of mountain gorillas has significantly increased. The IUCN has said the number of animals has risen from about 680 a decade ago to more than 1,000 now. Intensive conservation action such as removal of snares has contributed to the rebound of the mountain gorilla, which inhabits the Congo region's jungles.

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Whales get a reprieve

Fin whales are now considered vulnerable rather than the more worrisome label of endangered. Their number has roughly doubled since the 1970s, to around 100,000 individuals, according to the IUCN. The situation of gray whales has also been upgraded — from critically endangered to endangered. Bans on commercial whaling have made a real impact on conservation.

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Dampened euphoria

Yet the IUCN also issued warnings about the consequences of overfishing. For example, 13 percent of grouper species worldwide and 9 percent of the approximately 450 fish species in Lake Malawi in eastern Africa are threatened with extinction. "Depleting fish stocks are a serious concern for food security, particularly for coastal communities in developing countries," the IUCN said.

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Flying fox being over-culled

In a previous Red List update, the Mauritian flying fox — an important pollinator — moved from vulnerable to endangered. The bat population fell by a whopping 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 due largely to government-implemented culling sparked by alleged damage to fruit crops. The megabat species also faces threats from deforestation, illegal hunting and an increase in cyclone activity.

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Invasive species threaten Australian wildlife

Invasive species are threatening a number of unique Australian reptiles. This grassland earless dragon has shifted from vulnerable to endangered. It often falls prey to feral cats, as well as changes to the intensity and frequency of bushfires. Like most native Australian wildlife, the reptile is adapted to environmental conditions that existed before European settlement.

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A precious species

Taking its name from "The Lord of the Rings" character Smeagol — aka Gollum — the precious stream toad is also on the list of species threatened with extinction. It is listed as vulnerable, largely as a result of expanding tourist resorts and complexes in its Genting Highlands habitat in Malaysia.

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Junk food parrots

The population of keas, New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2017, is declining rapidly, mostly due to tourists who keep feeding the curious parrots junk food. As a result, the birds get used to trying novel food and end up eating poison bait meant to control pests such as rats, stoats, or possums, which destroy up to 60 percent of the birds' nests each year. You can see the connection, can't you?

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No sand eel, no kittiwake

Black-legged kittiwakes rely on certain key prey, like sand eels. But a lack of eels to eat means breeding colonies in the North Atlantic and Pacific are struggling to feed their chicks. Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40 percent since the 1970s. The main cause is overfishing and alterations in the ocean due to climate change.

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Fewer snowy owls than assumed

The snowy owl is vulnerable, with recent population estimates much lower than previously thought. Climate change has hit the iconic Arctic bird hard, as it has increased snowmelt and reduced the availability of rodent prey. A quarter of bird species reassessed in the Red List, including the snowy owl, have become more endangered.

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Reebok namesake in danger

Five species of African antelopes — of which four were previously assessed as least concern — have been declining drastically as a result of poaching, habitat degradation and competition with domestic livestock. One of these is the gray rhebok, for which the Reebok sports brand is named.

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World's largest antelope in trouble

The world's largest antelope, the giant eland — previously assessed as least concern — is also vulnerable. Its estimated global population is between 12,000 and 14,000 at most, with fewer than 10,000 mature animals. This species is declining due to poaching for bushmeat, human encroachment into protected areas and expansion of agriculture and livestock grazing.

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