A study comparing the extent of Earth’s wilderness areas in 1993 and 2009 documented an almost 30% loss in South America and a 10% loss globally.
In a study published today in Current Biology, researchers announced that the world had lost one-tenth of the wilderness that it had in the 1990s. They came to the conclusion after comparing a map of wilderness areas made in the early 1990s, to a map made using the same methods, today. They found that wilderness areas (areas where humans have not disturbed the landscape) had decreased by 1.27 million square miles, or about the size of Alaska.
Most of those losses occurred in the Amazon and Africa, where economic interests are clashing with conservation goals.
"The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening," James Watson, lead author of the paper and head of the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement. "We need to recognize that wilderness is being dramatically lost and that without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature's crown. You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, 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."
One reason for the trend, Watson and others say, is that governments and conservation organizations often prioritize their protection efforts on habitats that are severely threatened or degraded.
“If this keeps happening, we’ll lose many [priceless] places,” says James Watson, the study’s lead author, with the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
By 2009, about 23% of Earth’s land remained as wilderness—about 30.1 million square kilometers spread mostly across North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia, they conclude today in Current Biology. That’s 3.3 million square kilometers less than in 1993, an area about twice the size of Alaska—Watson says. South America has lost almost 30% of its wilderness in that time and Africa has lost 14%. The losses included the total devastation of several large swaths of forest and swamp in the Congo and in New Guinea.
Watson says he hopes this paper starts a conversation on protecting wilderness, which to date has been relatively ignored. “The truth is, not much is being done, and it’s not talked about.” And that needs to change, he says.
Wilderness areas are home to the variety of organisms that can't be found even in the marine protected areas.
Moreover, by storing carbon and buffering local climate, wilderness areas, particularly forests, can be “by far and away the most effective way to deal with climate change,” adds Russ Mittermeier, executive vice chairman of Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia, who was not involved with the study. Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson is now arguing for the preservation of half Earth’s land (even if it’s not all wilderness) and oceans and Mittermeier and others think that protecting that fraction of forests can be “50% of the climate change solution.”