A 10th of the world’s unspoiled wilderness areas have been lost since the 1990s, say experts calling for urgent action to preserve biodiversity on Earth.
New findings from a global ecosystem study reveal the “staggering” declines that have affected the last bastions of undisturbed nature, it is claimed.
In the last 20 years, wilderness regions amounting to an area twice the size of Alaska have vanished, the research reveals. The Amazon basin and central Africa have been hardest hit.
‘Wilderness’ is defined as a biologically and ecologically intact landscape free of any significant human disturbance.
Lead researcher James Watson, from the University of Queensland in Australia, said: “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 marginalised communities, are completely ignored in environmental policy.
“International policy mechanisms must recognise the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”
The scientists mapped wilderness regions around the world and compared their results with a previous similar map produced in the 1990s. Their findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.
The updated map shows that 30.1m sq km of the Earth — more than a fifth of the world’s land area — is still wilderness.
Although that might sound like a large amount of land, the proportion of surviving wilderness in the world has fallen alarmingly in the last two decades, say the authors.
An estimated 3.3m square kilometres — almost 10% — of wilderness has disappeared since the 1990s, the research showed. The most affected continents were South America, which had lost 30% of its wilderness, and Africa, where 14% had gone.
The majority of wilderness areas today were located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia.
Dr Watson added: “The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening.
“We need to recognise that wilderness is being dramatically lost and that without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown.
“You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological processes that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to pro-actively protect what is left. If we don’t act soon, it will be all gone.”