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Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

The Price of Plummeting Wildlife Populations


Some grim news recently surfaced: Wildlife populations across the globe are plunging dramatically. Vertebrate populations, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, have dropped by 69 percent on average since 1970. Discouragingly, these WWF and Zoological Society of London studies show greater declines every time they’re released. Given these alarming drops, it’s not surprising that 1 million plants and animals are currently threatened with extinction. Yet biodiversity plays a crucial role in maintaining the health, productivity and stability of our environment — which we depend on for our economy, well-being, and health. 

What’s at stake if wildlife continues to disappear?

We’re tightly linked to the other species on this planet, receiving a multitude of benefits from nature. For starters, bees, bats and birds pollinate many plants, including crops. Food production across the globe, worth $235 billion to $577 billion annually, relies on pollination by honey bees, native bees and flies. And just like vertebrates, we’re seeing declines in pollinating insects from pesticide use, habitat destruction and parasites. 

In addition to pollination, wildlife helps in other aspects of agriculture. Birds, beneficial insects, snakes, bats, and other mammals like skunks and coyotes consume pests that otherwise would harm crops. And they eat a lot of them! For instance, a single barn owl can eat more than 11,000 mice over its lifetime, pests that otherwise would have consumed 13 tons of crops, seeds and grains. This pest intake translates into a lot of savings: One estimate found that bats prevent agricultural losses in the U.S. to the tune of $22.9 billion each year. 

Beyond the bucolic world of cultivation, wildlife provides substantial value as a source of food, clothing, raw materials and recreation. For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that 41 percent of the U.S. population participated in wildlife-related recreational activities such as fishing, hunting and the viewing of animals in their natural habitats. That year, Americans spent nearly $76 billion watching animal species such as birds and marine mammals, while they spent over $26 billion on hunting expenses. On a similar note, direct consumption of wildlife can be a lucrative industry. U.S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated over $255 billion in sales and supported 1.8 million jobs in 2019. Finally, the booming field of ecotourism can generate income for local communities while helping preserve wildlife and local habitats. 

What can businesses do for wildlife?

WWF is calling not only to stem the loss of biodiversity, but also increase the extent of nature by 2030. How can companies pitch in? First of all, wildlife declines are a symptom of a much wider set of environmental problems, and tackling these will help. By far, their biggest threat comes from the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. However, if global warming isn’t limited to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, it’s likely that climate change will become the main driver of biodiversity losses in the future. If that weren’t enough, overexploitation, pollution and invasive species also are a menace to many species in the wild. 

Many businesses have already taken concrete action to help wildlife. For instance, protecting and restoring habitat benefit the animals that live there, and some businesses have already committed to this cause. Businesses can also avoid habitat destruction in their day-to-day operations. For instance, they can prevent development or operations in habitats important for imperiled species and biodiversity, employ strategies reducing their impacts on wildlife, restore previously degraded areas, or engage in biodiversity offsets and voluntary compensatory actions.

Combatting the illegal wildlife trade is also beneficial. Businesses can take a number of steps including sharing information, working to stop the transport of illegal wildlife products, raising awareness and declaring a zero-tolerance policy for this trade. The Trade, Development and the Environment Hub brings many organizations together across multiple countries to make the trade of wildlife, meat and agricultural products more sustainable. 

Finally, tackling climate change is good for the environment and businesses. Many companies have already set science-based targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Other steps businesses can take to fight global warming include reducing energy consumption and waste, encouraging employees to take public transit or carpool, choosing more environment-friendly infrastructures and equipment, and choosing suppliers with good environmental practices

Everyone, including businesses, should play a role in helping wildlife populations recover. Losses of wildlife are symptoms of a disease, but one that’s curable. If we address the root causes, wildlife will bounce back. 

Image credit: Janko Ferlic via Unsplash

Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.

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