True wilderness areas—where human impacts are minimal or entirely absent—are dwindling. That probably comes as no surprise to you. But you may not know the specific facts: that less than 20 percent of the world can still be called “wilderness” and that more than 1.15 million square miles (about the size of India) of wildernesses have been destroyed since the 1990s. Most likely, that’s within your lifetime.
Why does that matter? Because wilderness areas are home to the world’s biodiversity, and biodiversity is an integral part of humanity’s livelihoods and the services on which we rely, such as foods, medicines, pollination, soil fertility and clean water cycles. Wildernesses also ensure the long-term biocultural connections of Indigenous communities. And, as we stand on the brink of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, wildernesses are the only places where terrestrial wild animals can live.
Recently, a collaboration of scientists demonstrated that if wilderness areas—a large number of which are found outside of national parks and other currently protected areas—are conserved, they could cut the world’s extinction risk in half. Until now, the direct benefits of wildernesses for stopping extinctions were largely unknown.
But understanding just how valuable wilderness areas are is only the first step. The practical question is: how do we go about making them truly bulletproof against future attacks on their integrity, such as climate change and development?
The weightiness of wilderness
In a paper published in the science journal Nature in September 2019, researchers showed how wilderness areas clearly act as a buffer against extinction risk. Using a modeling program that provides fine-scale estimates of the probability of species loss around the globe and integrating it with the latest human footprint map generated by the University of Queensland and other collaborators, they were able to show that the risk of species loss is over twice as high for biological communities found outside wilderness areas. What’s more, wilderness habitat makes an even larger contribution, as some species can occur both inside and outside of wilderness areas, making this type of habitat essential for the persistence of many species that otherwise live in degraded environmental conditions.
Of course, around the world, wildernesses provide differing roles, with some areas playing an extraordinary part in their respective regional contexts, where their loss would drastically reduce biodiversity. Examples of such areas include sections of the Arnhem Land in Australia, areas surrounding Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon, forests in southern British Columbia (which are only partly protected), and savannah areas inside and outside the Zemongo Faunal Reserve in the Central African Republic.
The paper’s authors argue that a strategic expansion of the global protected-area estate is needed to preserve the irreplaceable wilderness areas that are most at risk, alongside national land-use legislation and the enforcement of business standards for stopping industrial footprints within intact ecosystems.
The bigness of biodiversity
At the beginning of 2020 at the World Economic Forum, biodiversity loss was highlighted as the third biggest risk to the planet in terms of likelihood and severity. An example of a vital and unique ecosystem that is on the verge of being lost is Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which is not only a habitat for a variety of wildlife but a provider of food and income for 300,000 people. The world’s largest permanent desert lake, Lake Turkana is currently being affected by a combination of human activities, such as overfishing, and climate change processes, such as cyclical drought and changing rainfall patterns.
Scientists warn that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction is already escalating and say that over 500 species of animals are at risk of becoming extinct in the next 20 years. This rate of loss would have taken thousands of years without the human destruction of nature.
Because of this urgency and the importance of biodiversity, rich countries may have to pay poorer nations to protect wildernesses.
The matter of money
In February 2020, negotiations with delegates from more than 140 countries took place at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ headquarters in Rome over the growing issue of biodiversity and ecosystem loss. A 20-point agreement was discussed that consisted of suggestions to protect a third of Earth’s lands and oceans, while also reducing pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients by 50 percent. As a result, rich countries—such as China and the U.S.—could be asked to pay nations with biodiverse, life-sustaining ecosystems—such as the Amazon rain forest—billions of dollars a year for the services those ecosystems provide for the world, halting and even reversing biodiversity decline. In return, profits from discoveries linked to these nation’s natural resources, such as new drugs, would be shared.
Small-scale schemes to protect ecosystems already exist under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, where countries with large forests receive payments to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.
The development of the design
But how do we ramp up a financing mechanism to support wilderness areas internationally? Luckily, researchers from Brazil, Germany, Sweden and the United States have discovered an appropriate model that would support the protection of the world’s natural heritage. In a recent study, they looked at three different design options for intergovernmental biodiversity financing with recurring payments. Asking what would happen if money was given to countries for providing protected areas, they simulated where the money would flow, what type of incentives this would create and how these incentives would align with international conservation goals:
1) The ecocentric design is based on the idea that larger protected areas are generally better for biodiversity conservation. Thus, it measures the total extent of protected area per country without relation to the size of the country, the number of protected areas or any socioeconomic factors.
2) The socioecological design adds a fairness element by granting a relatively larger share of the fund to less developed states. Therefore, it computes a ratio of existing protected areas with the Human Development Index (or HDI; the quantity of change, such as gains in average income, life expectancy or years spent in school). Thus, the lower the HDI, the larger is the corresponding share.
3) The anthropocentric design extends the socioecological design by also accounting for population density. This would maximize the number of people that benefit from protected areas and thus increases the share for countries that have both many protected areas and people.
The design that proved to be the most efficient was the socioecological model, which combines the extent of protected area per country and each nation’s development status. It provides the strongest median incentive—that is, the most additional money for protecting an additional percent of a country’s area—for states which are farthest from achieving the target. The result surprised the researchers by how well it aligned with global goals.
The Paris-style path
Today, we know that our relationship with nature is dangerously unbalanced. According to Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, “One million species are threatened with extinction, and the way we currently produce and consume is risking irreparable damage to the very natural systems that underpin human well-being and prosperity, from forests to oceans and river systems.”
What we need is a Paris-style agreement for nature; one that includes a set of science-based and measurable goals and targets for 2030, at the latest.
I believe, in the end, we—and our natural habitat, Earth—can only be saved by a wealth of wildernesses and barrels of biodiversity.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,