The world’s last great wildernesses are shrinking at an alarming rate. In the past two decades, 10% of the earth’s wilderness has been lost due to human pressure, a mapping study by the University of Queensland has found.
Over the course of human history, there has been a major degradation of 52% of the earth’s ecosystems, while the remaining 48% is being increasingly eroded. Since 1992, when the United Nations signed up to the Rio convention on biological diversity, three million square kilometres of wilderness have been lost.
According to the UQ professor and conservationist James Watson, senior author on the study, “If this rate continues, we will have lost all wilderness within the next 50 years.”
This wilderness degradation is endangering biodiversity, as well as the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and pollination. And, says Watson, once they have been damaged or cleared, the wildernesses are gone for good; there is no scientific evidence that degraded eco-systems could ever return to their original condition.
These pristine wild places exist in inhospitable locations: the deserts of Central Australia; the Amazon rainforest in South America; Africa; the Tibetan plateau in central Asia; and the boreal forests of Canada and Russia.
They are being encroached on by logging, oil and gas exploration, mining, roads and agriculture. “It is death by a thousand cuts” says PhD student James Allan, who also worked on the study. “The moment you put a road in, you get people moving in to farm, hunt, and [that] undermines the wilderness. The risk is that a lot of these systems could collapse. The Amazon is the best example of where you need the whole forest, or a huge portion of the forest, protected for the hydrological cycle to function.” One third of the Amazon wilderness region has been lost since 1992.
Watson agrees: “What we are showing is that the degradation of intact ecosystems affects the ability around cloud formation, so it means that literally the ability to create rain is affected. [And]we are seeing the dramatic impacts on water, in terms of the water flow in rivers.”
Loss of wilderness will affect the migratory species who depend on large intact wilderness areas, and the large carnivores – charismatic megafauna such as lions, who can’t live in a human landscape when their habitat disappears.
According to the study, Australia has not suffered the worst of global wilderness loss. “Central and Northern Australia has very little large scale infrastructure at the present,” says Watson. “We are very lucky, we have a very low population density and the vast majority of our population is on the coast. This doesn’t mean these areas are not threatened – they still have very serious issues with invasive species and non-natural fire regimes.”
However, James Trezise, policy analyst at the Australia Conservation Foundation, points to the irrigation and mining projects in Western Australia and South Australia scattered within the wilderness regions.
Trezise says Australia urgently needs to address the major drivers of habitat loss, invasive species and fire regimes. “We have some of the biggest intact tropical savannas, we have got amazing desert country [but] we have this immense challenge in how we adapt and protect nature going into the future. Otherwise, we will see a significant ramp-up in extinction. We will also see a huge loss in ecosystem function which could ultimately cascade onto us.”
The UQ study found that conservation efforts are being rapidly outpaced by the acceleration of the decline, thanks to massive global population growth and the associated economic growth that demands ever-increasing natural resources.
The problem is profound. “Intact functioning ecosystems” says Watson, “are critical not only for biodiversity but for the huge amounts of carbon they store and sequester. They provide a direct defence against climate-related hazards like storms, floods, fires and cyclones. They are the most resilient and effective defence against ongoing climate change.”
And yet only 20% of the earth’s surface now survives as wilderness. “Within a century it could all be gone,” says Watson, “and with it, uninfluenced evolution and natural carbon storage. When we started seeing the numbers, we had to double-check them because they were so large in terms of the loss.”
Loss of wilderness also affects Indigenous communities . “You have got people living in the Amazon, Congo and New Guinea who have been there for thousands of years subsisting through hunting – just sustainable use of the resources,” says Allan. “So loss of wilderness will have huge ramifications for local people and their livelihoods.”
While Trezise says the UQ research is “sound”, it is part of a bigger picture. “It doesn’t account for impacts such as climate change. In Canada you have climate change impacts to those boreal forests. You need to take this analysis and look at other bits of work and bring it all together to tell a holistic story. ”
The UQ research shifts conservation thinking which has historically targeted funding towards really threatened areas where there is a lot of human activity harming species.
“What we realised was that we were not really thinking about the other end of the spectrum, which is those amazing intact systems that are still functioning like they are meant to be function by evolutionary and ecological processes,” says Watson. “If you looked around, there were no maps, no discussion of how these places were changing. Or what was being lost. We realised that we should start looking at humanity’s influence on that end of the spectrum, the last great wildernesses on the planet.”
In 2016, Watson and his team released maps of the global human footprint, using eight data layersof roads, agriculture, grazing land, human population density, urbanisation and navigable waterways.
“The environment footprint of humanity is truly massive,” Watson wrote of his findings in Time. “No other species has ever come close to us in terms of consuming so much of the world’s energy, resources and land area. In this Anthropocene era, where the human footprint is now altering many of the Earth systems processes, wilderness areas serve as natural observatories where we can study the ecological and evolutionary impacts of global change.” The loss of wilderness maps build on that research.
It is hoped the maps and research will influence global policy. Watson says he has had “multiple” requests from policymakers around the world, including the UN.
He describes it as a call to action. “We have got to turn the corner, we have got to bend the curve, we have got to change this and save the last brilliant irreplaceable places.”
What we need, says Trezise, is “strong environmental law. We need big investments from government and the private sector, otherwise we will continue on a very sad trajectory.”