According to an Australian study published in Current Biology, Earth has lost 10 percent of its wilderness — around 1.2 million square miles, equivalent to twice the size of Alaska — in just the last two decades. This leaves just 12 million square miles intact.
As the above maps show, losses were most severe in the Amazon, central Africa, and central Russia, with some areas — such as the Northwestern Congolian Lowland Forests, the Northern New Guinea Lowland Rain and Freshwater Swamp Forests of Southeast Asia — becoming almost totally wiped out.
Note that for the purpose of the study, wilderness is defined as “biologically and ecologically largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance” — that leaves out many national parks or greenbelts that, while they appear pristine to the naked eye, have been shaped or exposed to human activity. (However, wilderness areas that are home to indigenous people still count, insofar as they have been minimally affected.)
As Vox.com reported, there is still some good news from this research:
On the bright side, there’s at least some hope of abating further losses. Throughout the 1990s in Brazil, farmers burned vast swaths of rainforest to make space for cattle and crops. But between 2005 and 2012, deforestation rates fell 70 percent thanks to new protections and efforts by Brazil’s cattle ranchers and soybean farmers to intensify production on the land they’d already cleared. It was one of the greatest environmental success stories ever. Still, it wasn’t airtight. In the past few years, deforestation in Brazil has starting ticking up again, particularly among small farmers — and there’s evidence that forest loss has accelerated in nearby Peru and Bolivia.
The Current Biology study also reported some positive news: Much of the remaining wilderness, about 80 percent, still consists of large, contiguous chunks of land. That’s crucial for the species living there: If habitats get too fragmented by roads or clear-cutting, animals become much less likely to survive. (Last year, I talked with Duke biologist Stuart Pimm, who was engaged in an effort to stitch together fragmented forests in Brazil in order to save species like the golden lion tamarin.)
Nevertheless, the study’s lead researcher was emphatic about the severity of the loss: once wilderness is gone, “it never comes back to the state it was“. While we can restore and revive some damaged regions, they will never function as optimally as they did before, not that it isn’t worth trying.
Still, it is clear that the best thing humans can do now is abate the rate of wilderness destruction and wholly preserve what remains. That not only means creating more protected areas and reserves — the most basic and direct approach to conservation — but changing the way we utilize natural resources or grow our food. Finding more sustainable substitutes for wood or minerals, and increasing crop yields to maximize the output of existing farmland, would go a long way towards precluding any additional destruction of wilderness. Humans might also have to make due with living in more denser communities, as opposed to the urban sprawls that brush up against or eat up so much nature.
Thankfully, a lot of countries are moving in this direction; Vox cites a 2015 report from the Breakthrough Institute, an environment and energy think tank, titled “Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation“, which highlights the way technology and innovation are helping humans minimize their environmental footprint. Hopefully, we will up the pace of these efforts to prevent any more of our wilderness from disappearing of the face of the Earth.