Earth’s last wilderness areas may soon be lost, study warns

“We have lost so much already so we must grasp this opportunity to secure the last remaining wilderness before it disappears forever.”

Healthy ecosystems are crucial in their own right for biodiversity and mitigating climate change, but more importantly, said the researchers, they are home for hundreds of millions of indigenous people, who rely on the wilderness to survive and thrive.

Scientists say the last wild areas left on the planet are rapidly disappearing, with explicit global conservation targets "critically needed" to protect them. Researchers from the University of Queensland recently mapped ocean ecosystems that have remained unchanged, complementing a 2016 project charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

According to the results of a new paper, only 23 percent of our planet's landmass exists in a near natural state of wilderness, with the rest having been directly degraded by human activities.

Overall, 77% of land - excluding Antarctica - and 87% of oceans had been modified by human intervention.

"In the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are nearly completely confined to the polar regions", he adds. The study excluded untouched wilderness in Antarctica and on the high seas that is not contained within national borders.

Wilderness, the study's authors said, is defined as an area not subject to direct human use.

Humanity's relentless spread across the face of the Earth has led to a dramatic decline in the quantity and quality of wilderness areas.

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New research published in the journal Nature found that almost three quarters of the wilderness that's left belongs to Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and the US. But success will depend on the steps these "mega-wilderness nations" take, or fail to take, to secure the future of Earth's last remaining wild places.

Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have for the first time produced a global map that sets out which countries are responsible for nature that is devoid of heavy industrial activity.

Their mapping methods for terrestrial wilderness included data such as population density, night-time lights and major roadways and indicators such as fishing, fertilizer run-off and industrial shipping to determine ocean ecosystems.

They form vital refuges for thousands of endangered species threatened by deforestation and overfishing, and provide some of our best defences against the devastating weather events brought about by climate change.

"We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets - specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding risky climate change and achieving sustainable development", said Allan. "Already we have lost so much", the report says.

"One take on the list is that alarm bells go off", said Watson.

Mechanisms such as REDD+, which allows developing nations to claim compensation for conserving tropical forests they had planned to clear, could be extended to other carbon-rich wilderness areas such as intact seagrasses, and even to wildernesses in rich countries that do not receive climate aid, such as the Canadian tundra. They can also establish protected areas to slow the spread of industrial activity into wilderness.

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