Published: Fri, November 02, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

World's remaining wilderness rapidly vanishing

World's remaining wilderness rapidly vanishing

Astonishingly, 94 percent of that space is confined to 20 countries, while the top five (Russia, Canada, Australia, the U.S., and Brazil - in that order) possess 70 percent of the world's remaining wilderness. At present, 77% of the planet's land area, barring Antarctica, is used for farming (growing crops and raising livestock), as compared to just 15% some 100 years ago. Today, only 23% of land - excluding Antarctica - and 13% of the ocean remains free from the harmful impacts of human activities. From 1993 to 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness nearly five times the size of the state of Texas - about 1.2 million square miles - was lost to human settlement, farming, mining, and other pressures.

"In the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are nearly completely confined to the polar regions", Watson said. The remaining natural ecosystems can be maintained only if countries recognize their significance and take joint efforts for their protection. "Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected", he said.

The team identified five "mega wilderness" nations - the United States, Russia, Canada, Australia and Brazil - that were estimated to contain about 70 percent of Earth's remaining wilderness, and so will be largely responsible for deciding the fate of Earth's remaining wildernesses.

Wilderness areas with pure water, uncontaminated fish stocks and a high abundance of game species are also important for the livelihood of the world's Indigenous people, who must be consulted, Venter said, adding governments in Brazil and Australia have high levels of involvement by Indigenous communities in their decision-making.

The initial land study brought forth some worrying results, says Professor James Watson, from UQ's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Despite their importance, wilderness areas are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

"Already we have lost so much".

For oceans, they used data on fishing, industrial shipping and fertiliser run-off to determine that just 13 percent of the planet's seas bore little or no hallmarks of human activity. Preserving the remaining wilderness regions could be a vital factor in battling climate change and safeguarding our species' well-being. But nearly two-thirds of marine wilderness lies in global waters, beyond the direct control of nations.

Nearly every nation has signed worldwide environmental agreements that aim to end the biodiversity crisis, halt unsafe climate change, and achieve global sustainable development goals.

Said John Robinson, WCS Executive Vice President for Global Conservation at WCS and a co-author of the paper: "Wilderness will only be secured globally if these nations take a leadership role". Not only is it the most intact ecosystem on the entire planet, the authors say, but it captures and stores around a third of the Earth's terrestrial carbon.

Watson said that one obvious intervention these nations could prioritise was establishing protected areas in ways that would slow the impacts of industrial activity on the larger landscape or seascape.

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