Almost Half the Earth Is Still Wilderness
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, December 5, 2002 (ENS) - Wilderness areas still cover close to half the Earth's land, but contain only a tiny percentage of the world's population, finds a new report from Conservation International. The 37 wilderness areas identified in the report represent 46 percent of the Earth's land surface, but are occupied by just 2.4 percent of the world's population, excluding urban centers.
A team of more than 200 international scientists and researchers spent two years compiling information about the Earth's most pristine and untouched regions. Their findings have been compiled in a new book, "Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places."
In most cases, these pristine areas host less than five people per square kilometer (.39 square miles).
"These wilderness areas are critical to the survival of the planet," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and a coauthor of the report. "They help regulate weather patterns and rainfall, and are major storehouses for biodiversity."
"Unfortunately, they are increasingly threatened by population growth, encroaching agriculture and extraction activities," Mittermeier warned. "Barely seven percent of them enjoy some form of protection."
"These very low density areas represent a landmass equivalent to the six largest countries on Earth combined - Russia, Canada, China, the United States, Brazil and Australia - but have within them the population of only three large cities, a truly remarkable finding," said Mittermeier.
Peter Seligmann, Conservation International's chair and CEO, said that learning about these undisturbed wilderness areas with their few inhabitants offers "a unique and historic opportunity to protect these high priority regions."
The Americas are home to the largest number of wilderness areas, with 16 unique regions that range from Patagonia in southern Argentina to the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada.
The Sonoran and Baja Californian Deserts, for example, include 324,300 square kilometers (125,212 square miles) in Mexico and the southwestern United States. Eighty percent of these deserts remain intact, supporting 118 species of birds and 45 mammals, including bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. The 570,496 square kilometers (220,270 square miles) of the Northern Rockies, which is more than 75 percent intact supports more than 1,400 species of plants, 92 native mammals and 264 bird species, such as the great gray owl, Clark's nutcracker and tundra swan.
The five wilderness regions that hold more than 1,500 native plant species are considered "high biodiversity wilderness areas," including the three largest tropical rainforests: South America's Amazon, Central Africa's Congo Forest and the Pacific island of New Guinea. Southern Africa's Miombo-Mopane woodlands and grasslands, and the deserts of northern Mexico and southwestern U.S. are also on the high biodiversity list.
"Wilderness areas are major storehouses of biodiversity, but just as importantly, they provide critical ecosystem services to the planet, including watershed maintenance, pollination and carbon sequestration," said Gustavo Fonseca, executive director of Conservation International's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, which was responsible for much of the book's analysis. "As international debates on climate change and water security continue, these wilderness areas take on even greater importance."
"Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places" is the third in a series of books, which also includes "Megadiversity" and "Hotspots."
With the publication of "Hotspots" in 1999, researchers identified 25 sites that represent only 1.4 percent of the Earth's land surface but contain more than 60 percent of its terrestrial species diversity. Those areas are under extreme threat and are focal points for Conservation International's conservation efforts.
"We have a narrow window of opportunity to keep these wilderness areas from becoming fragmented and fragile hotspots," Fonseca said. "If we are to succeed as conservationists, we have to take a two track approach and protect the biodiversity rich hotspots and keep our wilderness areas healthy."
"Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places" is available through Conservation International's website at: http://www.conservation.org