Blink and you may miss it. Wilderness now covers less than a quarter of land on Earth, and could disappear this century unless robust protection measures are introduced.
Wilderness areas are defined as ecologically intact landscapes that are mostly free from human disturbance. These complex ecosystems provide vital havens for endangered species, act as carbon sinks and support indigenous people.
James Watson at the University of Queensland, Australia, and his colleagues recently assessed the state of global wildernesses using a “human footprint index” that incorporated measures such as road, building, farm and population density. The team found that the world’s wilderness has shrunk from 33 to 23 per cent of land since the early 1990s.
In 1993, the United Nations established a Convention on Biological Diversity to boost conservation efforts. However, 3.3 million square kilometres of wilderness – twice the size of Alaska – have since been lost.
One reason for this failure is that wilderness areas are not explicitly mentioned in the convention’s targets for 2020, says Watson. These call for the rate of global deforestation to be halved, but do not distinguish between relatively pristine forests – wilderness areas – and already damaged ones.
Most international conservation focuses on trying to protect and renew degraded environments, under the assumption that wilderness areas are safe, Watson says. “But our analysis shows that these intact, quality places are disappearing dramatically, so we need a two-pronged approach.”
The Amazon has been hardest hit, with 30 per cent of its wilderness having vanished over the last two decades. At this rate of decline, the Amazon and other wilderness regions could be gone altogether by the end of the century, Watson says. “And once you erode a wilderness, you can’t get it back.”
Call to action
To prevent this, the UN convention should be altered to specifically protect wilderness regions and to create rules blocking the expansion of roads, agriculture, mining and commercial forestry into these areas when it sets its 2030 targets, he says.
In addition, threats that already exist within wilderness areas – such as invasive species – need to be addressed, says Euan Ritchie at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.
“There’s this notion that wilderness areas will keep species safe, but, of course, we’ve already lost species from wilderness places like Kakadu National Park [in Australia],” he says.
At the same time, attention still also needs to be directed towards protecting biodiversity in non-wilderness environments, he adds.
“We definitely need to conserve wilderness areas, but we also need to focus on degraded areas because they make up so much of the world now – humans are pretty much everywhere and affecting pretty much everything.”
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.08.049