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Researchers talk of ‘biological annihilation’ as study reveals billions of populations of animals have been lost in recent decades

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A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared, according to research.

Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eschews the normally sober tone of scientific papers and calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.

Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.

The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century. The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.

The scientists conclude: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

They say, while action to halt the decline remains possible, the prospects do not look good: “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”

Freeman was part of the team that produced a 2014 analysis of 3000 species that indicated that 50% of individual animals have been lost since 1970, which tallies with the new work but was based on different IUCN data. He agreed strong language is needed: “We need people to be aware of the catastrophic declines we are seeing. I do think there is a place for that within the [new] paper, although it’s a fine line to draw.”

Citing human overpopulation as the root cause of environmental problems has long been controversial, and Ehrlich’s 1968 statement that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation in the 1970s did not come to pass, partly due to new high-yielding crops that Ehrlich himself had noted as possible.

Ehrlich has acknowledged “flaws” in The Population Bomb but said it had been successful in its central aim – alerting people to global environmental issues and the the role of human population in them. His message remains blunt today: “Show me a scientist who claims there is no population problem and I’ll show you an idiot.”