About ten percent of the remaining wilderness on Earth has vanished in the last two decades. A new study, published in the journal Current Biology and titled “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets” shows the unsettling results of human activity.

About 1.2 million square miles, or twice the size of the state of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon, have disappeared in the last twenty years. The greatest losses have taken place in South America, with a third of all its wildland extinguished, followed by South Africa. Researchers have analyzed satellite data and surveys from the Wildlife Conservation Society recorded since the 90s.

The Chugach Mountains and Matanuska River near Matanuska Glacier. Image credit: Travel Alaska.

Some areas have lost nearly all their wilderness, for example, the ecoregions of the Freshwater Swamp Forests and Lowland Rain Swamp Forests in Northern New Guinea, and the Northwestern Congolian Lowland Forests.

Why is wilderness relevant?

Wilderness is defined as the areas of the world that have not been severely impacted by human civilization. Damage to one ecosystem can affect the rest since wildland regions are interconnected.

The loss of wildland affects wildlife, climate change, and indigenous communities across the world.

These globally important areas serve as regulators for local climates. They are also safe havens for biodiversity and support the most marginalized communities of the world, both politically and economically.

One of the study’s coauthors, Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia, pointed out that a large chunk of the Amazon has been lost. In particular, the mangrove ecosystems, which are a base for a lot of fisheries, as young fish are reared in such ecosystems.

The lead author of the study, James Watson — an associate professor at the University of Queensland, in Australia — meanwhile, emphasizes the fact that most biodiversity thrives in the wildland.

“Proactively protecting the world’s last wilderness areas is a cost-effective conservation investment and our best prospect for ensuring that intact ecosystems and large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes persist for the benefit of future generations” has stated Watson.

What remains can be saved

Watson has said that people across the world are responsible for safeguarding the remaining wilderness and restore the natural habitats that can still be saved.

He praised the movements that raise awareness about the importance of these diminishing wilderness areas. He ultimately noted that the things that contribute to habitat loss will have negative impacts on future generations.

About twenty-three percent of the world’s surface is wilderness. The study also shows some promising details: most of this remainder — about eighty percent — are large segments of land, crucial for the species that inhabit them.

Statistics between 2005 and 2012 have shown that deforestation in Brazil has decreased seventy percent, thanks to local efforts.

Wildland in the United States 

The Unites States has up to 759 wildernesses areas, that occupy 444,161.12 km2. Alaska is the state with the largest concentration of wildland, taking more than half of all areas in the country.

The Yosemite National Park might be the U.S. most famous wilderness area since it was designated by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in the 80s. The park receives four million tourists every year.

Yosemite National Park. Image credit: Spondylolithesis/iStock.

All these areas are protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and took eight years and over sixty drafts before it was passed.

The law created the American legal definition of “wildland” and created the “wilderness system” that is supervised by four federal agencies: The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

It also establishes which elements should be analyzed before classifying an area as a wildland. Elements include size, human imprint, historical, scientific or educational value, and opportunities for unconfined recreation.

Source: Scientific American