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A giant panda cub at a conservation and research center in the Sichuan Province of China in 2019. Photo: An Yuan/China News Service/Visual China Group via Getty Images

Wildlife populations have plummeted 68% in less than half a century and the "catastrophic" decline shows no sign of slowing down, a major conservation report published Wednesday warns.

Driving the news: The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) "Living Planet Report 2020" that monitored 4,392 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians from 1970 to 2016 points to one underlying cause for the populations decline and deterioration of nature: humanity.

What they found: Deforestation undertaken to increase agricultural land space was the biggest contributor to the decline, according to the biennial, which was in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London.

  • Three quarters of all freshwater and a third of all land mass is dedicated to food production, the report notes.
  • Populations in Latin America and the Caribbean have seen the biggest fall, with an average decline of 94%. Global freshwater species have fallen 84%.
  • "Nowhere in the ocean is entirely unaffected by humans," notes the report, with overfishing and pollution exacerbated by climate change cited as major problems.

Of note: The findings concur with those of a 2019 United Nations report that warns 1 million animal and plant species are under threat from extinction — driven by changes in land and sea use; "direct exploitation of organisms," such as hunting, fishing and logging; climate change; pollution; and invasive species.

What they're saying: WWF-U.S. President and CEO Carter Roberts said in a statement, "As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we're devastating species populations. But we're also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19."

Between the lines: The spillover of pathogens from animals to humans — driven mainly by human behaviors like urbanization and the demand to eat meat — is increasing, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly notes.

  • These Zoonotic diseases have "quadrupled in the last 50 years, mostly in tropical regions," a letter sent to Congress in March from more than 100 wildlife and environmental groups stated.

The bottom line: A study published in the journal Nature Thursday and co-authored by over 40 nonprofits and academics finds cutting food waste and opting for more nutritional diets would help prevent further losses to the ecosystem.

  • The WWF report also notes that the environmental crisis can be mitigated by such considerations and if world leaders take urgent action on consumption industries, including ending deforestation.

Read the full "Living Planet Report 2020," via DocumentCloud:

Go deeper: Coronavirus is tied to climate and biodiversity crises

Go deeper

Amy Harder, author of Generate
Oct 23, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Climate change goes mainstream in presidential debate

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

The most notable part of Thursday’s presidential debate on climate change was the fact it was included as a topic and assumed as a fact.

The big picture: This is the first time in U.S. presidential history that climate change was a featured issue at a debate. It signals how the problem has become part of the fabric of our society. More extreme weather, like the wildfires ravaging Colorado, is pushing the topic to the front-burner.

USAID chief tests positive for coronavirus

An Air Force cargo jet delivers USAID supplies to Russia earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of senior administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
3 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.