Catastrophic Declines in Earth’s Wilderness Areas Over the Last 20 Years, Study Finds


David Maxwell Braun, National Geographic 

Date Published


See link for photos, maps & charts. The “Catastrophic Declines” report can be found here
Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said today.

“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 New York-based WCS added in a statement released at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

“The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas 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 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. 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.”

Losing Entire Ecosystems

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.

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.

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.

Losing the Last Jewels in Nature’s Crown

“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.”

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.”

“Given the fact that we have already converted a third of the world’s land surface to agriculture of some kind, and that we are changing the atmosphere so rapidly that unless we start taking truly effective action now, it should not be surprising that the wild and natural areas of the world are being altered and even destroyed so rapidly,” said Peter Raven, Chairman of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration and President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. (Dr. Raven did not participate in the study.)

“Given the inequalities between nations, however, and our reluctance to help one another much with conservation, there is no particular reason to think the future will be that much better than the past.  To solve these problems we would need a level population that the Earth could support indefinitely; equitable consumption based on social justice around the world; the empowerment of women and children, so that everyone could use the gifts that they have for our common good; and a mutual understanding based on understanding and even loving one another as dwellers on a single finite planet.”

Human Population Increases by 250,000 a Day

Raven noted that we live in a world in which the human population has grown from one billion people two centuries ago, when all of the land was being divided into nations and colonies for the first time, to 7.4 billion people today. With 250,000 people net being added every day, the total global population is expected to increase by 2.4 billion additional people during the next 34 years, by mid-century (2050), he said.

“There are already three times as many people on Earth as when I was born in the mid-1930s.  The Global Footprint Network estimates that we are using 1.64 times the sustainable capacity of the Earth, up from 70 percent percent in 1970.  What is most alarming about our situation, though is the exceedingly uneven division of consumption between the different countries on Earth, given that we are already well over the top in consuming productivity.”

Raven recalled that a half century ago, Adlai Stevenson, addressing a committee of the United Nations at a time when the human population and consumption were about half of what they are now, said:

“We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent upon its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of man, half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.”

Racing to Consume the Most Possible

More than 200 million people have been killed in wars since countries began to vie with one another in earnest, Raven added.  The U.S. has about 7,000 nuclear tipped warheads, and Russia 7,700.  “Everyone wants to win the race to consume the most possible, whatever the cost to global stability, and conservation will not really become possible until we regain our collective sanity.

“The current article offers continuing proof that we are still a long way away from where we need to be.  I hope that it and the other signs evident everywhere might inspire us to overcome our inherited instincts and find a way to preserve the world in a way of which we could be proud.”