A tenth of the world's wilderness lost since the 1990s, study finds

Study: A tenth of the world's wilderness lost since the 1990s
Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. Credit: Liana Joseph

Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. They demonstrate alarming losses comprising a tenth of global wilderness since the 1990s - an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon. The Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say.

"Globally important wilderness areas—despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world's most politically and economically marginalized communities—are completely ignored in environmental policy," says Dr James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around."

Watson says much policy attention has been paid to the loss of species, but comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems, especially wilderness areas which tend to be relatively understudied. To fill that gap, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with "wilderness" being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s.

This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world's land area) now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

A tenth of the world's wilderness lost since the 1990s
This infographic shows catastrophic wilderness loss since the 1990s. Credit: Kendall Jones and James Allan

"The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering" Dr Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia. "We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we've foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world. Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature's crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left".

Globally important wilderness areas are strongholds for biodiversity, for regulating local climates, and for supporting the world's most politically and economically marginalized communities. They are disappearing rapidly, with an area twice the size of Alaska lost in two decades. Only 23 percent of the Earth's land surface contains now contains wilderness and some biomes have almost none left. Credit: James Allan and Kendall Jones

Watson says that the United Nations and others have ignored globally significant wilderness areas in key multilateral environmental agreements and this must change.

"If we don't act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet," Watson says. "We have a duty to act for our children and their children."

Explore further

No logging at protected Tasmanian forest: Australia

More information: Watson et al.: "Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets" http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)30993-9 , DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.08.049
Journal information: Current Biology

Citation: A tenth of the world's wilderness lost since the 1990s, study finds (2016, September 8) retrieved 17 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2016-09-tenth-world-wilderness-lost-1990s.html
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Sep 08, 2016
The idea of wilderness is ludicrous. Aside from a small amount of inaccessible lands, mankind has worked and reworked almost the entirety of the planet's surface; even the putative wilderness of the Amazon and Central American rain forests and SE Asia (Khmer) show evidence of clear cut, farming, building and regrowth.

Sep 08, 2016
So tell me again how bio-fuels are saving the planet!

Sep 08, 2016
This is where the idiots that claim we need more people since the demographic transition means pensions will be underfunded, etc. need to pay attention.
Destroyed, in 20 years, 10% of land based wilderness, 50% of the life in the ocean in 50 years, climate change isn't what will destroy humanity, it will be our eating everything on the planet. We'll be over 9 billion on the planet in 2050, if we're still around at all.
We CANNOT stop what we've initiated, people want to eat meat, not insects, therefore, no one should have children, anywhere, anymore.

Sep 09, 2016
ALL of this is happening in Asia, Africa, South America and Arabia where population growth is rapidly out-stripping the land. Political-correctness prevents politicians from stating that FACT. Nothing is going to stop this, save a plague or a rain of hydrogen bombs.

@michael Frishberg: I am happy that you have open eyes and see the actual root cause of the vast majority of problems that mankind and planet Earth are facing since the French revolution. That said, your approach of radical cure is well intended, but an emotional overreaction. Remaining (although, it is here fitting to say becoming) rational and logical is what we owe nature. While during the last millennia behaving mostly non-natural, non-aligned with the laws of our environment, man plays still a special role as upper frontier of the evolution, with the unique capability of consciousness. The life of all creatures serves the purpose of evolutive progress of the whole. Lives are very valuable. Conscious Self-extinction is unnatural. Globally limiting family sizes to 3 kids, alternating phase of 7 years without right for offspring etc. is the natural way. I recommend reading http://ca.figu.or...ion.html

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