Modern homo sapiens have been on the planet for over 100,000 years, but we've destroyed one-tenth of the globe's wilderness over the past 20.
When modern humans popped into the scene some 150,000+ years ago, suffice to say there was plenty of wilderness. But as we’ve evolved over the millennia, so has our landscape.
To wit, a staggering new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that only about 20 percent of the world's land area (30.1 million km2) is all that remains as wilderness. For the research, wilderness is defined as “biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance.”
But even more astonishing, when compared to similar mapping research conducted in the 1990s, the researchers found that an estimated 3.3 million km2 – almost 10 percent – of wilderness area has been lost in the decades since.
"The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering," says Dr Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia. "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."
Most of the remaining wilderness is in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent; the biggest losses have occurred in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and other parts of Africa, which show a 14 percent loss.
While there has been more attention on an international policy level focused on the declining species of the planet, less has been paid to larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems. And this has to change or we face an even bleaker future; there is no time to waste.
"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.”
The study, Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets, can be found in Current Biology.