The planet is going through a ‘catastrophic’ wilderness loss, study says

Desecrated jungle in the Peruvian Amazon. CREDIT: AP/RODRIGO ABD
Desecrated jungle in the Peruvian Amazon. CREDIT: AP/RODRIGO ABD

Just over 20 percent of the world can still be considered wilderness.

A tenth of the planet’s wilderness was eradicated in the last two decades and conservation efforts are failing to keep pace with the rate of wilderness loss, according to a new study.

The loss recorded since 1990 is equivalent to an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon, according to the study published Thursday in Current Biology. Most of the depletion is happening in South America, which experienced a nearly 30 percent loss, and Africa, which lost 14 percent of untouched ecosystems.

“Even though 10 percent is quite a small number in some ways, it really means that if we keep this trajectory going we will lose all wilderness in the next 50 years,” said James Watson, lead author and director of science and research initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society, in an interview with ThinkProgress.

”Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development,” he said. “We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”

Wilderness is defined as largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance. These areas do not exclude people; instead, they are free of large-scale land conversion, industrial activity, or infrastructure development.

The study, titled “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets,” is the first mapping of global change in wilderness over time, researchers said. To evaluate this decline, scientists measured changes in global wilderness maps that have become more accurate as satellite technology and global positioning systems have evolved. Researchers then compared their measurements against comparable data from the early 1990s.

According to the study, some 23 percent of the world can still be considered wilderness, and most of it is located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia.

“You cannot restore wilderness … the only option is to proactively protect what is left.”

But while the study notes protected areas have expanded over the past two decades, conservation has ultimately lagged. Since 1990, some 2.5 million square kilometers — slightly less than a million square miles — became protected worldwide. In contrast, about 3.3 million square kilometers of wilderness —roughly 1.2 million square miles — were lost.


“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering,” Oscar Venter, co-author and researcher at the University of Northern British Columbia, said in a statement. “You cannot restore wilderness … the only option is to proactively protect what is left.”

The findings show an immediate need for policies to recognize the value of wild areas, researchers said, and address massive losses particularly as human-caused climate change continues.

Intact ecosystems like rainforests can regulate local and global weather through the absorption and creation of rainfall, and their exchange of atmospheric gases. Forests also sequester carbon that can otherwise exacerbate climate change.

“Losing these places means that we are going to suffer the consequences of climate change more,” Watson, who presented his findings during the International Union for Conservation of Nature now happening in Hawaii, said. “Especially more extreme events, such as storms and droughts.”

The study comes as mounting research shows humans are gobbling natural spaces at an accelerated pace. Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners found that every 2.5 minutes the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent blog housed at the Center for American Progress.)

And last year, a North Carolina State University researcher and others found that the Brazilian Amazon and the Congo Basin are the last two areas with major untouched forests on the planet. They also found that some 70 percent of all remaining global forest cover is within one kilometer, or 0.6 miles, of human development.


Watson said saving wilderness will happen if countries like the United States, Australia, Brazil, and others with vast natural resources take a prominent stand. And indeed, some countries are ramping up their conservation efforts. Just last month, President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, the world’s largest natural sanctuary.

And in South America, the Amazon Region Protected Areas, or ARPA program, is creating sustainable natural resource management reserves in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, according to Thursday’s study. Meanwhile, the Canadian Boreal Forest Conservation Framework aims to protect at least 50 percent of the Boreal forest, the world’s largest land-based biome.

Still, much more needs to happen, researchers said, since losses continue in major wilderness strongholds in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and the forests of New Guinea. “We are running out of space for wilderness and we are running out of time,” Watson said.