“Prince William was right: population growth does threaten wildlife”, says charity

From tigers to hedgehogs, new report lays out evidence on extinction threats.

4 October 2023, immediate use

[Read the report here]

To mark World Animal Day (October 4), campaigning charity Population Matters is calling on governments around the world to take action to address pressures caused by human population growth or risk losing charismatic megafauna such as tigers, elephants, and chimpanzees to extinction.

The group, which is a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has today published a new report Vanishing Icons: How population growth is driving our most-loved animals to extinction, which substantiates controversial comments made by the Prince of Wales in 2021 regarding threats to elephants arising from population growth. [1]  

The report illustrates the finding of the 2019 Global Assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that population growth is one of the key underlying drivers of biodiversity loss: in IPBES’ words, “Our numbers drive degradation.” [2] Vanishing Icons shows how habitat loss, overexploitation, human-wildlife conflict, climate change and even poaching can be exacerbated by population growth. Among the report’s findings are:

Tigers are now confined to less than a tenth of their historic range. [3] 57% of remaining tiger habitats are less than 5 km from roads, fragmenting the habitat and facilitating transport links for criminal networks to conduct poaching of tigers’ skins, teeth, and claws. 24,000 km of road are expected to be built in tiger habitat by 2050. [4]

• Santa Monica mountain lions have a 100% chance of extinction within the next 50 years due to roads dividing habitat ranges and isolating populations, leading to inbred gene pools. [5] Traffic reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic closures during March-July 2020 showed a 58% drop in the rate of mountain lion killed on California highways. There was a similar fatality rate drop for endangered Florida panthers, a subspecies of mountain lion, also observed at this time. [6]

• Two-thirds of the African continent still provides suitable habitat for elephants, but only 17% of that habitat is available to them due to roads, farms, and urban development. In the words of the IUCN, “Currently the most important perceived threat is the loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by ongoing human population expansion and rapid land conversion.” [7] Research suggests that elephant populations will co-exist with human communities until a threshold of about 15-20 people per km2 is reached. [8] Currently, the average population density of Zimbabwe, for example, is 41 people per km2 and its population is projected to grow by 25% in the next decade. [9]

• According to the State of Nature report published last week, one in six British species faces extinction. [10] The European hedgehog is classified as a species of least concern across most of Europe, apart from the UK where in 2020 it was put upon the IUCN Red List for British Mammals as vulnerable to extinction in Great Britain. [11] Agricultural intensification, driven in part by domestic population growth, is a key factor in their decline, while casualties from road use may be as high as 335,000 hedgehogs per year. [12]

• Overexploitation and habitat degradation of the main prey of the critically endangered southern resident orcas, Chinook salmon, means the orcas have lost 17% of their necessary calorie requirements for six of the last 40 years, contributing to nearly 70% of pregnancies being unsuccessful. [13,14] Sea traffic, partly to serve Canada’s growing population, also creates noise pollution impairing their ability to hunt. [15]

• Nearly 40% of chimpanzees already live within 5km of a human settlement and nearly 60% are within 5 km of a road, making them increasingly vulnerable to poaching for bush meat. [16] Increased proximity between humans and chimpanzees also endangers them due to the risk of disease transfer, with chimpanzees vulnerable to more than 140 human diseases due to their close genetic relation to humans. [17]

• While not yet a significant factor for the specific animals covered in the report, temperature rises due to climate change may threaten as many as one in six species across the globe. [18]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is unambiguous about the role of population in driving climate change, stating in 2022: “globally, GDP per capita and population growth remained the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the last decade”. [19]

Alistair Currie, Population Matters’ Head of Campaigns, says:

A couple years ago, Prince William got a barrage of criticism for saying population growth threatened animals in Africa. As heir to the throne of a colonial power and a mega-wealthy father of three children, he should have thought a lot more carefully before wading in on that subject. But it doesn’t mean he was wrong. From Kenya to Kent, population growth is threatening myriad animals in myriad ways. The more space we take up, the less space we leave for other creatures to exist on this planet. Unless we can speak frankly about all the factors driving animals to extinction, we have no chance of reversing that trend.

We need far more and far quicker action to reverse biodiversity loss than just tackling population. No one should pretend that there is one driver or a simple recipe for action, and legitimate concern about population growth shouldn’t blind us to the impacts of unsustainable consumption, agro-business, climate change and poaching, among other factors. What’s distinctive about tackling population growth, however, is how positive the solutions are, benefitting people as well as animals: tackling poverty, empowering women and girls, ensuring access to modern family planning, quality education for all.

The report calls for accelerated action to meet the failing Sustainable Development Goals, and for conservation organisations to acknowledge the population factor and support positive, choice-based efforts to address it. The report also outlines Population Health Environment (PHE) conservation approaches which address the health and wellbeing of local communities where wildlife is endangered. Such programmes can include gender equality and child and maternal health strategies, alongside family planning service provision, helping to enhance opportunities and reduce the pressure on natural resources by local communities, restoring and preserving areas of habitat to remain for other species to thrive. [19]

The fully-referenced 20 page report is available at https://populationmatters.org/resources/vanishing-icons/

Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications, Population Matters
E: alistair.currie@populationmatters.org
T: 020 4552 5131


1. iNews 23 November 2021 https://inews.co.uk/news/prince-william-human-population-growth-africa-harming-wildlife-1315378; al Jazeera 24 November 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/prince-william-remarks-on-africa-population-growth-spark-backlash
2.Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report Chapter 2.1 status and Trends (2021) – Researchgate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/355717497_IPBES_
3.Amazing species: Tiger – IUCN red list. Available at: https://nc.iucnredlist.org/redlist/amazing-species/pantheratigris/pdfs/original/panthera-tigris.pdf
4.Carter N, Killion A, Easter T, Brandt J, Ford A. Road development in Asia: Assessing the range-wide risks to tigers. Sci Adv. 2020 Apr 29;6(18) Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190336/
5.Schmerker, J. (2020) Southern California’s Mountain Lions face long-term survival challenges, Integrated DNA Technologies. Available at: https://eu.idtdna.com/pages/community/blog/post/pretty-threatened-southern-california-s-mountain-lions-face-serious-long-term-survival-challenges
6.Shilling F, Nguyen T, Saleh M, Kyaw MK, Tapia K, Trujillo G, Bejarano M, Waetjen D, Peterson J, Kalisz G, Sejour R, Croston S, Ham E. A Reprieve from US wildlife mortality on roads during the COVID-19 pandemic. Biol Conserv. 2021 Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8457620/
7.Blanc, J. (2008) Loxodonta africana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T12392A3339343.en; Shrinking spaces for the world’s largest Land Animal (2022) IUCN. Available at: https://www.iucn.org/news/species-survival-commission/202108/shrinking-spaces-worlds-largest-land-animal
8.Shaffer, L.J. et al. (2018a) Human-elephant conflict: A review of current management strategies and Future Directions, Frontiers. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2018.00235/full
9.Population density: Population density (people per sq. km of land area) (no date) World Bank Open Data. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.DNST?locations=ZW; population growth 16.4m in 2023 to 20.1 in 2033, UN World Population Prospects https://population.un.org/wpp/
10.State of Nature Report 2023. Available at: State of Nature 2023 – State of Nature Partnership Available at: https://stateofnature.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/TP25999-State-of-Nature-main-report_2023_FULL-DOC-v12.pdf
11.Red list for Britain’s mammals (no date) The Mammal Society. Available at: https://www.mammal.org.uk/science-research/red-list/
12.Hedgehogs on roads: New Review assesses the problems and solutions (2020) Nottingham Trent University. Available at: https://www.ntu.ac.uk/about-us/news/news-articles/2020/10/hedgehogs-on-roads-new-review-assesses-the-problems-and-solutions
13.Wasser SK, Lundin JI, Ayres K, Seely E, Giles D, Balcomb K, et al. (2017) Population growth is limited by nutritional impacts on pregnancy success in endangered Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0179824
14.COUTURE, F (2023) As chinook salmon get thinner and fewer, southern resident killer whales struggle to find enough food, The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/as-chinook-salmon-get-thinner-and-fewer-southern-resident-killer-whales-struggle-to-find-enough-food-186866
15.Williams, R., Elliser, C.R., and Broadhurst, G. (2023). How Much Noise is Too Much for Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea? The Case for a Carrying Capacity Study. Salish Sea Institute, Western Washington University https://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=salish_pubs
16.IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group (2020). Regional action plan for the conservation of western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) 2020–2030. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. Available at: https://iucn.org/resources/publication/regional-action-plan-conservation-western-chimpanzees-pan-troglodytes-verus
17.Chimpanzees WCS.org. Available at: https://www.wcs.org/our-work/species/chimpanzees
18.Five drivers of the Nature Crisis (2023) UNEP. Available at: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/five-drivers-nature-crisis (Accessed: 21 September 2023).
19.Climate change 2022: Mitigation of climate change (no date) IPCC. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-3/

Population Matters is a UK-based charity working globally to achieve a sustainable future for the benefit of people and planet. Our mission is to promote positive, empowering action to foster choices that help achieve sustainable human population and consumption.


Registered charity: 1114109


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