Natural habitats are home to a rich biodiversity that’s required to sustain life on earth. This biodiversity makes up several ecosystems, and we humans are linked to almost every one of them in one way or the other. The loss of such habitats will reduce biodiversity and have a negative impact on the functioning of numerous ecosystems. The past decade has witnessed rapid depletion of such wilderness due to climate change and deforestation, a trend that must be reversed to ensure humanity’s survival as a species.
A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has mapped the last remaining wilderness on our planet. The results reveal that 70% of such untouched wilderness is located in just five countries around the world – Russia, Canada, Brazil, United States, and Australia. The study has defined “wilderness” as territory that runs uninterrupted over 10,000 sq. km. (3,861 sq. mi.) and free of human pressures – including settlements, farmland, and transportation infrastructure. The researchers state that earth’s last remaining wilderness, home to several untouched natural ecosystems, is at the risk of “disappearing completely”.
The study also conclusively proved a hypothesis known to many of us – that earth’s surface has undergone rapid and dramatic changes during the past century. At present, 77% of the planet’s land area, barring Antarctica, is used for farming (growing crops and raising livestock), as compared to just 15% some 100 years ago. From 1993 to 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness almost five times the size of the state of Texas – about 1.2 million square miles – was lost to human settlement, farming, mining, and other pressures. Human activities have also directly or indirectly modified 87% of today’s oceans. The greed of humans has been vital in reducing the planet’s natural habitat and thus affecting several ecosystems.
The study follows an alarming report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which estimated that human activity has decimated wildlife population by 60% in the past four decades. Earlier, WWF also warned that 50% of wildlife and 60% of plants in the world’s most biodiverse forests could be at risk of extinction over the next century.
The findings of the current study have been published in the journal Nature on 31st October 2018. According to the report, the remaining untouched areas should be protected as it might prove to be critical in mitigating the effects of climate change. While forests and seagrass meadows are important reservoirs of carbon, other wilderness can act as a buffer against extreme weather events by absorbing the impacts of extreme rainfall or natural disasters like tsunamis.
“Wilderness areas provide important refuges for species that are declining in landscapes dominated by people,” the report said. “In the seas, they are the last regions that still contain viable populations of top predators, such as tuna, marlins, and sharks.”
As conservationists call for a mandated target for wilderness conservation, the authors of the study have suggested for “international policy frameworks” that recognize the importance of preserving earth’s remaining natural habitat. They have called on the five countries containing the intact ecosystems to limit new industrial activity and cooperate among themselves to ensure the survival of the remaining wilderness. “Already we have lost so much,” the report says. “We must grasp these opportunities to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever.”