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A new study by the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund has found that thousands of species of wildlife have lost over half of their populations. The “Living Planet Report,” released last month, found that nearly 3,038 species of wildlife have declined by 52 percent between 1970 and 2010. The losses of populations of most of the world’s vertebrate species’ are much more than previously understood. In large part, the decline is due to human causes.

Previous editions of the report, carried out every two years since 1970 by scientists together with the WWF, showed declines of around 28 percent. However, improved methods of measuring animal populations produced more accurate and more frightening results. The analysis of data from 10,380 populations of 3,038 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish revealed much greater devastation and more precipitously declining populations than ever imagined.

The survey found that land animal populations declined by around 38 percent since 1970, mainly because of hunting, fishing and habitat loss. Populations of marine species, such as turtles, fish and seabirds declined by 39 percent. More dangerous is how much the freshwater populations of fish, frogs and shorebirds, among many others, have declined — by 76 percent. Those populations have been devastated by contact with humans.

Researchers are still not sure how much of this ecological imbalance of freshwater species is reversible, but the causes were found to be water pollution and habitat devastation caused by humans.

The study offered a few hopeful elements. Land animals inside protected areas declined only 18 percent, compared to the 39 percent for animals outside protected areas. Clearly better protection of habitats is greatly needed.

However, the decline even in the already protected habitats shows that the damage from hunting and fishing, habitat change and habitat loss, as well as climate change, continues unabated. Global warming, invasive species, pollution and new diseases — all human-generated problems — further contributed to the loss of over half of the world’s vertebrate populations in just 40 years.

To suggest the possibility of mass extinction of many species may sound alarmist, but if the current rates of decline continue, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next 40 years. Many species will be gone.

Governments and industries need to find ways of protecting species. Working harder to reverse pollution, restrict habitat invasion and reduce global warming will make a huge difference. The consequences of how a single species — humans — live and what values guide that species are urgent questions. Support from industries and governmental action are vital if the destructive side of human nature is going to be held in check so that the world’s animals can continue to exist.

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