Map of remaining wilderness areas in 2018. 77 percent of land and 87 percent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities. Graphic: Watson, et al., 2018 / Nature

1 November 2018 (UQ News) – The world’s last wilderness areas are rapidly disappearing, with explicit international conservation targets critically needed, according to University of Queensland-led research.

The international team recently mapped intact ocean ecosystems, complementing a 2016 project charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

Professor James Watson, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the two studies provided the first full global picture of how little wilderness remains, and he was alarmed at the results.

“A century ago, only 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface was used by humans to grow crops and raise livestock,” he said.

“Today, more than 77 per cent of land – excluding Antarctica – and 87 per cent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.

“It might be hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining, and other pressures.

“And in the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution, and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions.”

UQ Postdoctoral Research Fellow James R. Allan said the world’s remaining wilderness could only be protected if its importance was recognised in international policy.

“Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected,” he said.

“There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation.

Twenty countries contain 94 percent of the world's remaining wilderness in 2018. Graphic: Watson, et al., 2018 / Nature

“We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets — specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

The researchers insist that global policy needs to be translated into local action.

“One obvious intervention these nations can prioritise is establishing protected areas in ways that would slow the impacts of industrial activity on the larger landscape or seascape,” Professor Watson said.

“But we must also stop industrial development to protect indigenous livelihoods, create mechanisms that enable the private sector to protect wilderness, and push the expansion of regional fisheries management organisations.

“We have lost so much already, so we must grasp this opportunity to secure the last remaining wilderness before it disappears forever.”

The article has been published in Nature (DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-07183-6).

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World’s last wilderness may vanish


Imazon SAD data showing monthly Amazon deforestation, 2009-2018. Data: Imazon. Graphic: Mongabay

By James E. M. Watson, Oscar Venter, Jasmine Lee, Kendall R. Jones, John G. Robinson, Hugh P. Possingham, and James R. Allan
31 October 2018

(Nature) – A century ago, only 15% of Earth’s surface was used to grow crops and raise livestock1. Today, more than 77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities2,3. This is illustrated in our global map of intact ecosystems (see ‘What’s left?’).

Between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures4. In the ocean, areas that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions5.

Numerous studies are revealing that Earth’s remaining wilderness areas are increasingly important buffers against the effects of climate change and other human impacts. But, so far, the contribution of intact ecosystems has not been an explicit target in any international policy framework, such as the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity or the Paris climate agreement.

This must change if we are to prevent Earth’s intact ecosystems from disappearing completely.

In 2016, we led an international team of scientists to map the world’s remaining terrestrial wilderness3,4. This year, we produced a similar map for intact ocean ecosystems2 (see ‘Wild Earth’). The results of these efforts show that time is running out to safeguard the health of the planet — and human well-being.

Some conservationists contend that particular areas in fragmented and otherwise-degraded ecosystems are more important than undisturbed ecosystems6,7. Fragmented areas might provide key services, such as tourism revenue and benefits to human health, or be rich in threatened biodiversity. Yet numerous studies are starting to reveal that Earth’s most intact ecosystems have all sorts of functions that are becoming increasingly crucial2,8,9.

Wilderness areas are now the only places that contain mixes of species at near-natural levels of abundance. They are also the only areas supporting the ecological processes that sustain biodiversity over evolutionary timescales10. As such, they are important reservoirs of genetic information, and act as reference areas for efforts to re-wild degraded land and seascapes.

Various analyses reveal that wilderness areas provide increasingly important refuges for species that are declining in landscapes dominated by people11. In the seas, they are the last regions that still contain viable populations of top predators, such as tuna, marlins, and sharks9.

Safeguarding intact ecosystems is also key to mitigating the effects of climate change, which are making the refuge function of wilderness areas especially important. A 2009 study, for instance, showed that Caribbean coral reefs that have low levels of pollution or fishing pressure recovered from coral bleaching up to four times faster than did reefs with high levels of both12. And a 2012 global meta-analysis revealed that the impacts of climate change on ecological communities are more severe in fragmented landscapes13. [more]

Protect the last of the wild

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