When scientists focus on saving a rare and endangered species, they can often lose focus of the bigger picture. It now seems that that bigger picture is not looking great. A new study published in Current Biology has found that over the last 25 years, humans have catastrophically destroyed 10 percent of the world's remaining wild landscapes.
Most studies looking into our impact on the environment have focused on deforestation, particularly in the tropics. But rainforests only make up one facet of the planet's remaining wild spaces. In this latest study, the researchers defined “wilderness” as anywhere that is largely free of human disturbances, including roads, although they made exceptions for indigenous people who were still using the landscape, often in the same way for millennia.
They found that around 23 percent of Earth’s land – or 30.1 million square kilometers (11.6 million square miles) – could be classed as wilderness (they excluded Antarctica and the oceans from their analysis), most of which can be found in North America, Northern Asia, North Africa, and Australia. When compared to the satellite data from the early 1990s, they found that roughly 10 percent of the wilderness had been wiped out, equating to an area twice the size of Alaska, though some parts of the world are faring far worse than others.
Despite there being some restraint and control of logging in the Amazon in the last few years, the researchers found that over the last 25 years almost a third of the forest had been cut down, while the Congo rainforest is also fighting for its survival, as it has lost 14 percent of its forest cover over the same period. When such wilderness is lost, the authors argue, it can never be restored as the mature and complex processes of the ecosystems are gone.
One of the reasons as to why there is a continuing decline in these wild places could be down to the fact that conservationists tend to be reactive, rather than proactive. The authors suggest that because scientists and organizations tend to focus on the most threatened of habitats, they miss the fact that healthier landscapes are left unguarded, and thus vulnerable to slash and burn agriculture and mining activities. In addition to that, the focus on individual species rather than whole scale landscapes has meant that conservationists are simply missing the bigger picture of what exactly is going on.
But the wholesale destruction of the few remaining wild regions of the planet is not only bad for the thousands of species that call these places home, it will also have a major impact on climate change, which will in turn impact us. These areas often protect against extreme weather, while also sorting vast amounts of carbon, accumulated over millions of years.
Change in wilderness areas since the early 1990s. Watson et al. 2016