Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined on average by 52% from 1970 to 2010, according to WWF’s Living Planet Report, which uses information on 10,380 populations of 3,038 species to see how global wildlife is faring.
Experts from the Zoological Society of London, which maintains the database of information on the species, said the figures meant that where in 1970 there was a population of 100 animals, now there were only 50.
For freshwater creatures, the situation is even worse, with population declines of more than 76% in 40 years, the ‘living planet index’ of species shows.
The main threats to wildlife populations are loss or damage to their habitat and exploitation through hunting and fishing, the report said, while climate change is already having an impact on wildlife and is set to increase as a threat.
The situation is worst in low-income countries, where wildlife populations have declined by 58% on average between 1970 and 2010, while the richest countries saw a 10% increase, although those nations have seen significant losses in the more distant past, experts said.
Examples of wildlife that are suffering serious declines include forest elephants in Africa, which are facing habitat loss and poaching for ivory and could become extinct within our lifetime, and marine turtles, which have seen an 80% drop in numbers.
In Britain, farmland birds have been badly hit by habitat degradation, with major declines in corn buntings, but there is better news for red kites and otters which have seen numbers increase with conservation efforts, experts said.
The report also warned that human activity is outstripping the resources the Earth can provide, cutting down forests too quickly, overfishing and putting out more carbon dioxide than the planet can absorb, leading to climate change.
Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL, said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming.
“This damage is not inevitable, but a consequence of the way we choose to live. Although the report shows the situation is critical, there is still hope.
“We need to explain to the public that what they do is directly behind the trends we are seeing. There is an enormous disconnect between going to the supermarket and putting fuel in your car and the global statistics we’re talking about here,” he warned.
David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, said people could also look at reducing their meat and dairy consumption, which would be good for their health and the planet, and using public transport when they could.
WWF is calling for measures including expanding protected areas and scaling up renewable energy production.