Published: Fri, November 02, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

World's last wilderness may soon vanish with more than 77% of land

World's last wilderness may soon vanish with more than 77% of land

The UQ and WCS study, published in the journal Nature, identifies Australia, the US, Brazil, Russia and Canada as the five countries that hold the vast majority of the world's remaining wilderness.

Including about a hundred years ago for agricultural purposes, including livestock production, has been used on only 15 percent of the planet's surface. It is hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009 a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres of terrestrial wilderness - an area larger than India - 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 nearly completely confined to the polar regions". The remaining natural ecosystems can be maintained only if countries recognize their significance and take joint efforts for their protection. At present, many protected areas in the world not officially defined, unmapped and not protected at the legislative level.

In a week when scientists warned that animals were being driven to the brink of extinction by runaway consumption, the paper's findings that most remaining wilderness lies with just five nations will likely set conservationists' nerves on further edge.

A mere five countries contain 70% of the untouched natural ecosystems left in the world, and will only continue to survive with urgent worldwide cooperation, according to researchers.

Yet despite being important and highly threatened, wilderness areas and their values are completely overlooked in worldwide environmental policy. "There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation".

The two studies provided "the first full global picture of how little wilderness remains", according to the researchers.

The authors recommend imposing global targets within existing frameworks to protect these remaining ecosystems, saying "Already we have lost so much". But nearly two-thirds of marine wilderness lies in worldwide waters, beyond the direct control of nations.

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"We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets - specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding unsafe climate change and achieving sustainable development", said Allan.

"It's achievable to have a target of 100%", Watson said.

If the wilderness is not protected urgently, their refuge function, important especially in times of climate change, will be affected.

Moreover, these spots often act as the world's lungs, storing carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

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".

"One obvious intervention these nations can prioritize is establishing protected areas in ways that would slow the impacts of industrial activity on the larger landscape or seascape", Watson said. Key to this will be lenders' investment and performance standards, particularly for organisations such as the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the regional development banks.

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