Researchers that were reporting on the journal Current Biology show catastrophic decrease in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. They showed worrying losses comprising a tenth of the world’s wilderness since the 1990’s – an area half the size of Amazon and twice the size of Alaska. Central Africa and the Amazon have been most affected.
The new findings according to the researchers highlight an immediate need for the recognition of the value of wilderness areas by international policies and to address the unprecedented threats they face.
“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.”
According to Watson, many of the policy attention have been paid to the loss of species. But, comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of the entire ecosystems especially areas of wilderness that tend to be relatively understudied. The researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe to fill the gap, defining “wilderness” as biologically and economically intact landscapes that does not have any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990’s.
The comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world’s land area) now remains as wilderness, with most of it located in North America, North Asia, North Africa and the Australian continent. The comparisons between the two maps however show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of the wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. South America is where most of those losses have occurred, having experienced a 30 percent decrease in wilderness and Africa which experienced a 14 percent loss.
“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering.” says 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.” He adds.
Also, according to Watson, the United Nations and others have ignored significant global wilderness areas in important multilateral environment 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 concludes. “We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”