The New Living Planet Index Shows Serious Animal Population Declines — Why Has the Report Caused Controversy in the Past?

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Oct. 13 2022, Published 1:41 p.m. ET

Source: Getty Images

Every year, the organizations WWF and ZSL publish an updated version of the Living Planet Index, a report that analyzes vertebrate animal species from a variety of habitats across the world, in order to measure the state of biodiversity on planet Earth.

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The 2022 Living Planet Report has just been released, and shows some serious population decline around the globe over the past few decades. However, it’s important to note that this report only represents a fraction of the world’s species — something that has been misconstrued in recent years.

Keep reading for a look into the report’s key findings and takeaways.

Source: Getty Images
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The WWF and Living Planet Index just released the 2022 report.

Co-authored by 89 authors and published by the WWF on Oct. 12, 2022, the Living Planet Report 2022 found that between 1970 and 2018, there has been an “average decline of 69 percent in species populations.” That very broad figure doesn’t mean that 69 percent of the animals within these species have died — it just means that on average, these populations are less than one-third of the size they were five decades ago.

That said, this figure only refers to the species which were monitored as part of the report, which were vertebrate species (animals with spines) from land, marine, and freshwater habitats. That means only amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles were studied.

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The writers of the 2022 Living Planet Index monitored nearly 32,000 vertebrate species populations for the report. And though that number may sound like a lot — and it certainly is a big statistical undertaking — there are a total of about 54,000 identified vertebrate animals inhabiting Earth, according to Syracuse University.

That means that this report only looked at about 60 percent of the planet’s known vertebrate species — and vertebrate species only make up about 5 percent of all the identified animal species currently living on Earth, as per Exploring Our Fluid Earth. So, this report is a pretty small slice of all of our planet’s animal species populations.

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The Living Planet Index has inspired some controversial news reporting in the past.

As The New York Times pointed out, there have been a few controversies in regards to the Living Planet Index over the years, since news articles about the annual report tend to lead with these averages, which do not reflect how many individuals make up a certain species. And as Vox noted, many news outlets simply focus on the broadest statistic from the report each year — something that evokes a sense of climate doomism in readers, but is a bit misleading.

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In truth, the report simply looks to discover how certain species populations have changed over the years, and to galvanize people to step up to protect our planet and its animal inhabitants.

And the team behind the report is aware of how news reports often lead with sensational headlines — for that reason, they are working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen this time around.

“We’re going overboard this time to be really clear about what this indicator is and what it’s not,” co-author and WWF chief scientist Rebecca Shaw told Vox. “We can’t really control the interpretations in the media.”

In the past, it was traditional to “pound on the negative numbers just to get anybody to listen,” Shaw told Vox. “But people are listening now,” she added.

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The WWF and Living Planet Index team believe urgent environmental action is needed.

All that being said, the message of the report is as true as ever. “Urgent action is required if we are to reverse nature loss,” the authors wrote. And taking action to protect declining animal species will also help fight the climate crisis in general.

In the report, the authors included a number of things that the Living Planet Index will be doing to help with that, including: starting to count invertebrate and plant species in the report; streamlining data for the report; improving prediction models; and developing the index to be a tool that can be used at the policy level.

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