A study conducted by a team of conservation biologists reveals how little Wilderness is left in the world. It also reveals a dangerous tendency that surviving fragments of pristine nature are quickly fading. According to this paper in ‘Nature’ from 2018, 77 % of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87 % of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activity. In other words: only 23% of the earth are potentially free from human influence. Why potentially? Because this study considers remaining Wilderness as land, which does not have industrial activity. That means that even these 23% could be impacted by extractive uses, such as hunting, fishing, forestry, or grazing.
The authors connect these drastic numbers to human population growth, which has led to industrial expansion and a dramatic loss of Wilderness. A century ago, humans only used 15% of earth’s surface to grow crops and raise livestock. Today, this number has multiplied by five.
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Little Wilderness remains
For most of earth’s 4.5 billion year existence, it was just one vast Wilderness – untouched and unsullied by human hands. Within a few centuries, human influence has covered almost the whole planet. Just from 1993 to 2009, an area of terrestrial Wilderness larger than India – a staggering 3.3 million km² – had to give way to human settlement, farming, mining, industry development and other pressures.
Scientists warn how dangerous this trend is and how catastrophic the consequences could be. A particular concern is that once the Wilderness is gone it is almost impossible to restore it to the original condition, in which it fulfils irreplaceable functions. It is for example the only refuge for an increasing number of species and ecological processes. Large marine predators like tunas, marlins and sharks only live in marine areas without industrial fishing. Wilderness is also crucial for genetic diversity and climate change mitigation.
Terrestrial and marine Wilderness even fulfils functions that do not directly come to mind. For example, intact coral reefs might be twice as effective in protecting coastal areas from tsunamis as degraded ones. And these benefits often protect some of the most margnalized communities in the world.
Marine Wilderness especially threatened
In the ocean, the situation is even worse. On land, we can still find small fragments of Wilderness, which are completely free of any extractive uses. In the contrary, areas free of industrial fishing practically do not exist. On a global scale, sea free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping is almost completely confined to polar regions. And we even expolite these regions more and more intensively due to shrinking ice shields.
This recent studies reveal a shocking situation. Wilderness, the cradle of humanity, is disappearing in front of our eyes. It seems that coming generations are going to have much less opportunity to experience real Wilderness. We have to make sure that future will continue nature that is completely untouched by humans. Therefore a network of audited Wilderness becomes more and more important.
A way forward
The only way to protect Wilderness on a global scale is to protect it with international policy frameworks that actually bring change. Unfortunately, the European Union is a prime example that resolutions alone do not bring change. Even though the European Wilderness Resolution is in place for over 10 years, it has not had any real impact. One important aspect of improving frameworks is to officially recognize and value the benefits of pristine nature like carbon sequestration. This opens the doors for compensation, which makes it financially viable for land owners to stop extractive uses.
Another step mentioned in Nature is including Wilderness as a criertia for UN World Heritage sites. While UNESCO designated some wild areas as such, due to their natural beauty or unique biodiversity, Wilderness itself is no aspect in the designation of Heritage sites. On a national scale, governments have to make sure that existing pristine nature is not destroyed by infrastrucutre, agriculture, forestry and fishing. This includes ensuring the livelihood of local communities, so they do not have exploit Wilderness to make a living.