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."


Bighorn sheep in the Northern Rocky Mountains wilderness. (Photo by William R. Konstant, courtesy Conservation International)
The team identified 37 wilderness areas, including habitats on every continent, ranging from the Amazon rainforest, teeming with more than 30,000 endemic plant species, to the barren deserts of the Sahara. Only areas greater than 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,861 square miles) with at least 70 percent of their original vegetation intact qualified.

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."


A Gambel's quail perches on a fruiting saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Patricio Robles Gil/Sierra Madre)
Excluding urban centers, wilderness areas cover 46 percent of the globe's land surface, but are occupied by just 2.4 percent of the world's population. Nineteen of the areas, representing 38 percent of the Earth's land surface, have very low population densities - about one person per square kilometer or less - and these are often native communities.

"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."


Native peoples, like this performer at a Mount Hagen Highlands Show in Papua New Guinea, benefit from the protection of the wilderness in which they live. (Photo by Cristina Mittermeier, courtesy Conservation International)
"These wilderness areas are important for any global strategy of protecting biodiversity, since we have the opportunity to save large tracts of land at relatively low costs," Seligmann added. "In doing so, we can also support indigenous communities that are often struggling to maintain their traditional way of life."

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.


A herd of Cape buffalo taking an afternoon drink at Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, part of the Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Grasslands wilderness. (Photo by Patricio Robles Gil/Sierra Madre)
Africa has eight wilderness areas, including the dense forests of the Congo and the expansive plains of the Serengeti. Australia and New Guinea share six areas, Europe has three areas and Asia two. The Arabian Desert and Antarctica are also considered wilderness areas.

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."


A humpback whale diving off the Alaskan coast with the mountains of the Pacific Northwest Wilderness in the background. (Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn, courtesy Conservation International)
The largest wilderness area is the boreal forest, which forms a 16 million square kilometer (more than six million square mile) ring just beneath the Arctic Circle that stretches across Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and Russia. The smallest site - with 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,861 square miles) - is the Sundarbans, the world's largest tidal mangrove forest, which straddles India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges River.

"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."


Sunset falls on the highest peaks of Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protected Area in Coahuila, Mexico. (Photo by Patricio Robles Gil/Sierra Madre)
The new book, a collaborative effort between Conservation International and Agrupación Sierra Madre, features 576 pages of text and more than 500 photographs depicting rare species and remarkable places around the world. Conservation International's Global Conservation Fund helped finance the research project, and the book was published by CEMEX, a global company based in Mexico.

"Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places" is available through Conservation International's website at: