HONOLULU ― Over the past 20 years, a mere blink of an eye in our species’ 200,000-year existence, humans have managed to eliminate 10 percent of the world’s wilderness, a new analysis has found.
Globally, the authors write, the “catastrophic declines” in wilderness area over the last two decades add up to about 1.27 million square miles ― an area twice the size of Alaska.
Hardest hit was the Amazon, which has lost 30 percent of its wilderness area since the early 1990s. In Central Africa, 14 percent of the total wilderness area has vanished.
The study, which appeared Thursday in the journal Current Biology, is just the latest piece of evidence that we are having a devastating impact on the natural world around us.
In an interview this week at the world’s largest conservation event, James Watson, director of science and research initiatives at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the leader of the study, described his own findings as “shocking” and “bloody dramatic.”
“I consider it like a species extinction,” Watson, an associate professor fellow at Australia’s University of Queensland, told The Huffington Post. “When the last individual of a population of a species disappears, that’s extinction. That’s profoundly sad. Loss of wilderness is the same thing ― you can’t get it back. It will come back as something else, but you are losing a system that has evolved for millions of years.”
For their study, Watson and his team mapped wilderness areas around the globe and compared their findings to a similar map produced in the early 1990s. They found that the rate of loss is nearly double the rate of current protection efforts, underscoring an “immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of wilderness and unprecedented threats they face.”
The study defines “wilderness” as “biologically and ecologically largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance.”
Today, only about 23 percent of the world’s land area consists of intact wilderness. Most of it is located in North America, North Asia, North Africa and Australia , according to the findings.
The majority of that wilderness ― 82 percent ― still consists of large contiguous areas of at least 3,800 square miles, which the authors point out is encouraging.
Around the world, conservationists are desperately fighting the biodiversity crisis, zeroing in on species whose populations are nearing extinction and trying to restore and protect already threatened habitats. In the process, Watson said, humans have forgotten about the “crown jewel” ― those few wilderness areas that still remain intact.
Protecting these areas is “essential,” Watson said. “And yet it’s just being ignored.”
Watson likened current conservation efforts to a doctor racing to a funeral home to try to save a patient, instead of people being taught at a young age the risks of eating unhealthy food.
“From a conservation point, maybe we should stop people from chopping down trees in the first place,” he said. “That’s the strategy, as opposed to trying to save the last 15 individuals of a species. It’s costly, way too late.”
Watson says it’s time to ask the question: What does nature need? Does it need us to protect imperiled species, or safeguard the last intact places? The answer, he says, is not one or the other.
“We conflate it all, and get into these wee intellectual battles,” he said. “What’s more important? They’re both important. Nature needs both.”
The study was released during the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, taking place all this week in Honolulu. The congress, which is being held in the U.S. for the first time in IUCN’s 68-year history, is the world’s largest environmental and nature conservation event and is often referred to as the Olympics of conservation. This year’s event drew more than 9,000 delegates from 190 nations.
Watson’s latest report urges the United Nations and other organizations to acknowledge significant wilderness areas in future environmental agreements. It also calls for the creation of large, multi-jurisdictional protected areas.
“If we don’t act soon, it will be all gone, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet,” Watson said in a statement. “We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”