Researchers report catastrophic declines in wilderness areas all around the world. We’re killing off the planet’s wildlife and we’re doing it fast.

Photo by Amelia Paige.

The new findings highlight the need for immediate action, demonstrating alarming losses. Wilderness areas are regions where the land is still pristine or almost pristine, where human intervention has been minimal. In many countries of the world (especially developed countries, such as the US, UK or Australia) wild areas also have a legal meaning, defining land where development is prohibited by law. But even so, these areas are quickly mauled down.

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“Globally important wilderness areas — despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities — are completely ignored in environmental policy,” says Dr James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

Wilderness areas, despite being crucial in all environments and providing countless environmental services, are often neglected by policy makers for a simple reason: they’re wild, and we don’t really interact with them (at least not often) – so we don’t care about them as much.

“Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”

The timeframe in which this happened is also staggering. It’s only been twenty years! We’re talking about a planetary-scale process, something which affects the entire planet, and we destroyed 10% of it in a quarter lifetime.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering” Dr Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia. “We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we’ve foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world.”

There’s still time to protect what’s left, but we have to act fast. Much of what we’ve done is already irreversible, but we can still make a different – with an active intervention. Otherwise, we’ll be left with little true wilderness on the planet.

“Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left.”

Journal Reference: Watson et al. Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets. Current Biology, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.08.049