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Call to protect dwindling wilderness ‘before it disappears forever’

  • Just 23 percent of wilderness on land and 13 percent of wilderness at sea remains, according to new maps of global human impacts.
  • Five countries — Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States and Brazil — contain 70 percent of the remaining wilderness.
  • The authors of the suite of studies argue that wilderness protection should move to the forefront of the conservation agenda.

New, highly detailed maps now reveal the state of the world’s wilderness, both on land and at sea, and the picture looks bleak.

In a series of recent studies, a group of researchers led by ecologist James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Australia’s University of Queensland analyzed the surface of Earth for significant human activity, such as roads and railways, pastures and farmland, and population centers, at a resolution of 1 square kilometer (0.4 square miles). In the oceans, they looked at fishing efforts as well as fertilizer effluent and shipping lanes.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta in southern Africa. Image courtesy of WCS/University of Queensland.

The results are staggering, as summarized Oct. 31 in the journal Nature: Just 13 percent of the world’s oceans lack signs of human activity. And the figures on land aren’t much higher: not counting Antarctica, just 23 percent of terrestrial wilderness remains. But hidden in what Watson called a “horror story” for untouched places is the potential to save what’s left and, with it, life on Earth.

“Science is clearly showing that large intact places are the best low-hanging fruit that we should go and conserve,” Watson told Mongabay.

Early on in the research, a 2016 study comparing those changes with the pace of population and economic growth indicated that we weren’t losing wilderness as quickly as might be expected. Those “encouraging” results suggested that, as a species, we humans were using resources more efficiently, the researchers said.

The extent of wilderness on land and at sea around the world. Image courtesy of Watson et al.

But as the scientists dug deeper into the data, producing maps that looked at how well parks and reserves safeguard biodiversity and wild spaces from human impacts and the extent of humanity’s reach in the world’s oceans, for example, Watson said the story that emerged was “how little is left.”

At the same time, other investigations have demonstrated the importance of intact wilderness in softening the blow of changing weather as a result of climate change, acting as sanctuaries for plant and animal species to flourish and evolve beyond human influence, and maintaining stockpiles of carbon.

But often, the singular goal of protecting threatened species dominates discussions about conservation, often to the exclusion of the need to set aside the last of Earth’s wilderness, Watson said. In his view, the loss of wilderness is just as “profound” as the loss of species.

French Polynesia. Image by dany13 via Flickr.

“You can have both agendas. They’re both bloody important, and if both fail, we’re going to lose,” Watson said. “If you want to sustain biodiversity in the future, you’ve got to have intact places.”

Similarly, he said that just designating a percentage of the world as protected areas wouldn’t be enough.

Watson and his colleagues reported earlier this year that perhaps one-third of the world’s protected areas weren’t holding the impacts of human use at bay. In a 2016 study, they also found that, despite a rise in the global area under protection between 1993 and 2009, the world lost an India-size chunk of wilderness — some 3.3 million square kilometers (1.27 million square miles).

The Torres del Paine in Chile. Image by Gregoire Dubois.

“The conservation community has to have more arrows in its quiver,” Watson said.

Those strategies could involve empowering indigenous communities to safeguard the forests they live in, he said. In their analyses, the presence of people within a plot of land didn’t preclude its classification as wilderness. Rather, they were looking for more substantial levels of human activity.

Legislation or robust action by private companies to rid their supply chains of deforestation could also be powerful tools, Watson said, in avoiding the critical “first cut” into wilderness areas. In many cases, developments such as a road or a mine touch off a cascade of irreversible changes to wild places.

“You can’t restore wilderness,” Watson said.

The loss mirrors the finality of species extinction, he added. “The very values are gone, and they never come back even if left alone.”

A canoe crossing a river in the rainforest. The Wyss Foundation’s Campaign for Nature will invest $1 billion over the next 10 years to conserve 30 percent of Earth. Image by Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Also on Oct. 31 and separate from this research, the Wyss Foundation committed $1 billion to conserve 30 percent of Earth’s surface and seas by 2030 through its Campaign for Nature. Echoing Watson’s call for a diversified attack, the Wyss Foundation, along with partners including the Nature Conservancy and the National Geographic Society, plans to invest in grassroots projects to shore up protections around the world.

“I believe that to confront the global conservation crisis, we need to do far more to support locally-led initiatives that conserve lands in the public trust, so that everyone has a chance to experience and explore the wonders of the outdoors,” philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, the foundation’s founder, said in a statement.

With upcoming international conferences on biodiversity in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and climate change in Katowice, Poland, Watson said now was the time to rally around the need to protect wilderness worldwide and come up with “clear targets” to achieve that goal.

“What you need is a Paris moment where nations get together and commit to change,” he said, referring to the 2015 U.N. climate accords signed in the French capital, viewed as a watershed moment when much of the world at least acknowledged the steps required to minimize the rise in global temperatures.

Antarctica wasn’t included in the calculations of wilderness, but the authors point out that protecting it from human impacts will require international collaboration. Image by Jasmine Lee/University of Queensland.

The answer could be as straightforward as getting some of the “wildest” countries to maintain the wilderness they have. Outside of Antarctica and the internationally governed high seas, 94 percent of remaining wilderness occurs in just 20 countries. And 70 percent is concentrated in just five: Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States and Brazil.

“Those nations should be proud of that,” Watson said. “They can lead the world in securing those places that have been largely untouched by humanity.”

That responsibility extends beyond their borders to international waters, home to nearly two-thirds of the last marine wilderness and vital sanctuaries for some of the ocean’s top predators, Watson said. But safeguarding these remnants requires according wilderness its due importance to life on Earth.

“If we don’t recognize that there is a problem,” he said, “we’re going to lose everything.”

Banner image of a sea turtle by Belle Co

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Jones, K. R., Klein, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Venter, O., Grantham, H., Kuempel, C. D., … & Watson, J. E. (2018). The location and protection status of Earth’s diminishing marine wilderness. Current Biology, 28(15), 2506-2512.

Jones, K. R., Venter, O., Fuller, R. A., Allan, J. R., Maxwell, S. L., Negret, P. J., & Watson, J. E. (2018). One-third of global protected land is under intense human pressure. Science, 360(6390), 788-791.

Venter, O., Sanderson, E. W., Magrach, A., Allan, J. R., Beher, J., Jones, K. R., … & Levy, M. A. (2016). Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation. Nature Communications, 7, 12558.

Watson, J. E., Shanahan, D. F., Di Marco, M., Allan, J., Laurance, W. F., Sanderson, E. W., … & Venter, O. (2016). Catastrophic declines in wilderness areas undermine global environment targets. Current Biology, 26(21), 2929-2934.

Watson, J. E., Venter, O., Lee, J., Jones, K. R., Robinson, J. G., Possingham, H. P., & Allan, J. R. (2018). Protect the last of the wild. Nature, 563, 27-30.

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