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Global conservation policy must stop the disappearance of Earth's few intact ecosystems
OBITUARY Thomas Steitz,
ribosome Nobel laureate,
remembered p.36
can advise on data analysis
and interpretation p.35
co-opted science in
the cold war p.32
ECOLOGY Domestic safari finds
rich biodiversity down the
back of the sofa p.31
Protect the last of the wild
Global conservation policy must stop the disappearance of Earth’s few intact
ecosystems, warn James E. M. Watson, James R. Allan and colleagues.
century ago, only 15% of Earth’s
surface was used to grow crops and
raise livestock1. Today, more than
77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and
87% of the ocean has been modified by the
direct effects of human activities
. This is
illustrated in our global map of intact eco-
systems (see ‘What’s left?’).
Between 1993 and 2009, an area of terres-
trial wilderness larger than India — a stag-
gering 3.3million square kilometres — was
lost to human settlement, farming, mining
and other pressures4. In the ocean, areas that
are free of industrial fishing, pollution and
shipping are almost completely confined to
the polar regions5.
Numerous studies are revealing that
Earth’s remaining wilderness areas are
increasingly important buffers against the
effects of climate change and other human
impacts. But, so far, the contribution of
intact ecosystems has not been an explicit
target in any international policy framework,
such as the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for
Biodiversity or the Paris climate agreement.
This must change if we are to prevent
Earth’s intact ecosystems from disappear-
ing completely.
In 2016, we led an international team of
scientists to map the worlds remaining
terrestrial wilderness
. This year, we pro-
duced a similar map for intact ocean eco-
systems2 (see ‘Wild Earth’). The results of
these efforts show that time is running out
to safeguard the health of the planet — and
human well-being.
Some conservationists contend that
A Xikrin woman walks back to her village from the Cateté River in Brazil.
1 NOVEMBER 2018 | VOL 563 | NATURE | 27
particular areas in fragmented and
otherwise-degraded ecosystems are more
important than undisturbed ecosystems
Fragmented areas might provide key ser-
vices, such as tourism revenue and benefits
to human health, or be rich in threatened
biodiversity. Yet numerous studies are start-
ing to reveal that Earths most intact eco-
systems have all sorts of functions that are
becoming increasingly crucial2,8,9.
Wilderness areas are now the only places
that contain mixes of species at near-natural
levels of abundance. They are also the only
areas supporting the ecological processes
that sustain biodiversity over evolution-
ary timescales10. As such, they are impor-
tant reservoirs of genetic information, and
act as reference areas for efforts to re-wild
degraded land and seascapes.
Various analyses reveal that wilderness
areas provide increasingly important ref-
uges for species that are declining in land-
scapes dominated by people
. In the seas,
they are the last regions that still contain
viable populations of top predators, such as
tuna, marlins and sharks9.
Safeguarding intact ecosystems is also key
to mitigating the effects of climate change,
which are making the refuge function of
wilderness areas especially important. A
2009 study, for instance, showed that Car-
ibbean coral reefs that have low levels of
pollution or fishing pressure recovered from
coral bleaching up to four times faster than
did reefs with high levels of both12. And a
2012 global meta-analysis revealed that the
impacts of climate change on ecological
communities are more severe in fragmented
Many wilderness areas are critical
sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide.
For example, the boreal forest is the most
intact ecosystem on the planet and holds
one-third of the worlds terrestrial carbon.
And intact forested ecosystems are able to
store and sequester much more carbon than
are degraded ones
. In the tropics, logging
and burning now accounts for up to 40%
of total above-ground carbon emissions
In the ocean, seagrass meadows that are
degraded (such as by sediment pollution)
switch from being carbon sinks to major
carbon sources15.
Moreover, models based on geography,
rainfall, degree of deforestation and so on
are starting to reveal the degree to which
wilderness areas regulate the climate and
water cycles — locally, regionally and glob-
ally. Such areas also provide a buffer against
extreme weather and geological events. Sim-
ulations of tsunamis, for instance, indicate
that healthy coral reefs provide coastlines
with at least twice as much protection as
highly degraded ones16.
Wilderness regions are home to some
of the most politically and economically
marginalized indigenous communities on
Earth. These people (who number in the
hundreds of millions) are reliant on intact
marine and terrestrial ecosystems for
resources such as food, water and fibre17.
Many have established biological and cul-
tural connections with their environment
over millennia. Securing the wilderness is
central to reducing their poverty and mar-
ginalization — and to achieving numerous
UN Sustainable Development Goals, from
reducing inequality to improving human
We believe that Earths remaining wilder-
ness can be protected only if its importance
is recognized within international policy
Currently, some wilderness areas are
protected under national legislation such
as the 1964 US Wilderness Act, which
protects 37,000km
of federal land. But in
most nations, these areas are not formally
defined, mapped or protected, and there
is nothing to hold nations, private indus-
try, civil society or local communities to
account for their long-term conservation.
What is needed is the establishment of
global targets within existing international
frameworks — specifically, those aimed at
conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous
climate change and achieving sustainable
There are several ways to do this imme-
diately. The carbon sequestration and stor-
age capacities of wilderness areas could be
formally documented, and the importance
of conserving them written into the policy
recommendations of the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Such a move would enable nations to make
the protection of wilderness areas an integral
part of their strategy for reducing emissions.
As an example, under the UNFCCC
process for reducing emissions from defor-
estation and forest degradation (REDD+),
landowners can be compensated if they
refrain from clearing an area of tropical for-
est that they’d planned to develop. However,
there are no incentives for nations, private
industry or communities to protect crucial
carbon sinks, even when no imminent devel-
opment is identified. This means that there
is nothing to stop the slow erosion of these
places from small-scale and often unplanned
industrial activity. Similar policies are needed
to protect other carbon-ri ch ecosystems, such
as seagrass meadows, and temperate and
boreal forests, especially in developed coun-
tries that do not currently receive financial
support under the UNFCCC.
Later this month, Egypt will host the
14th gathering of the Conference of the
Parties to the Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD). Signatory nations, intra-
governmental organizations such as the
International Union for Conservation of
Nature (IUCN), non-governmental organi-
zations and the scientific community will
meet to work towards a strategic plan for
the protection of biodiversity after 2020.
We urge participants at the meeting to
To map Earth’s remaining terrestrial
wilderness, we used the best
available data on eight indicators of
human pressures at a resolution of
1square kilometre. These were: built
environments, crop lands, pasture
lands, population density, night-time
lights, railways, major roadways and
navigable waterways3,4. (Data were
collected in 2009.) For our map of
intact ocean ecosystems, we used
2013 data on fishing, industrial
shipping and fertilizer run-off, among
16 other indicators2.
We identified wilderness land or
ocean areas as those that were free of
human pressures, with a contiguous
area of more than 10,000 km2 on land.
et al
Mapping methods
28 | NATURE | VOL 563 | 1 NOVEMBER 2018
include a mandated target for wilderness
conservation. In our view, a bold yet achiev-
able target is to define and conserve 100% of
all remaining intact ecosystems.
A mandated global target will make it
easier for governments, non-governmental
organizations and entities such as the Global
Environment Facility (a multinational fund-
ing programme that tackles environmental
and sustainability problems) to leverage
funding and mobilize action on the ground.
It will also help to enable action under the
various conventions that are attempting to
protect biodiversity. For example, officially
recognizing the contribution that the wil-
derness makes to the ‘outstanding universal
value’ of certain areas could lead to the desig-
nation of new Natural World Heritage Sites.
Under the UN World Heritage Conven-
tion, Natural World Heritage Sites are cur-
rently selected for their outstanding natural
beauty, or because they contain unique bio-
diversity or ecological and geological fea-
tures. The wilderness is associated with all
of these criteria, but its importance has yet
to be specifically acknowledged.
Almost two-thirds of marine wilderness
lies in international waters, beyond the
immediate control of nations. The United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
is currently negotiating a legally binding
agreement to govern high-seas conserva-
tion. Keeping Earth’s remaining marine
wilderness off-limits to exploitation should
be a key component of the new treaty. Strict
limits on government subsidies of harmful
fishing will also be crucial here; without
these, more than half of high-seas industrial
fishing would be unprofitable18.
Our maps exclude Antarctica because it
is off-limits to direct resource exploitation
such as mining, and the indirect effects of
human activities there are harder to meas-
ure. But it is a crucial wilderness area that
is urgently in need
of protection.
Antarctica’s isola-
tion and extreme
conditions have
prevented the lev-
els of degradation
experienced else-
where. But invasive
species, pollution,
increased human
activity and, above all, climate change are
threatening its unique biodiversity and its
ability to regulate the global climate.
The Antarctic Treaty System’s Committee
for Environmenta l Protection has prior itized
research and action targeted at minimizing
human impacts in its latest five-year plan.
Signatory nations must now commit to
implementing measures targeted at reduc-
ing human impacts, such as strict biosecurity
procedures that minimize the risk of visitors
to Antarctica introducing invasive species.
How can changes in policy at the global level
translate into effective national action?
By our measure, 20 countries contain
94% of the world’s remaining wilderness
(excluding the high seas and Antarctica).
More than 70% is in just five countries —
Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States
and Brazil (see ‘What’s left?’). Thus, the steps
these nations take (or fail to take) to limit the
expansion of roads and shipping lanes, and
to rein in large-scale developments in min-
ing, forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and
industrial fishing, will be critical.
One obvious intervention that these
nations can prioritize is establishing pro-
tectedareas in ways that would slow the
impacts of industrial activity on the larger
landscape or seascape19. Given the scale of
wilderness areas, however, the expansion of
strictly enforced protected areas won’t suff ice.
Several studies show that stopping
industrial development to protect the live-
lihoods of indigenous people can conserve
biodiversity and ecosystem services just as
Emperor penguins
in the Ross Sea.
1 NOVEMBER 2018 | VOL 563 | NATURE | 29
that enable the
private sector to
protect, rather
than harm,
areas will be
well as strictly protected areas can. As such,
the recognition of local community rights
to land ownership and management could
be a key way to limit the impacts of indus-
trial activity8.
Mechanisms that enable the private sec-
tor to protect, rather than harm, wilderness
areas will be crucial. Specifically, the preser-
vation of intact ecosystems needs to feature
among lenders’ investment and performance
standards, particularly for organizations
such as the World Bank, the International
Finance Corporation and the regional
development banks. Initiatives that enable
companies to declare their supply chains
deforestation-free’ (such as for products
containing palm oil) should be expanded to
help to secure more intact ecosystems.
In the oceans, regional fisheries manage-
ment organizations (RFMOs), formed by
countries to manage shared fishing inter-
ests, have effectively closed large areas of
the high seas. For example, the North East
Atlantic Fisheries Commission (an RFMO
founded in 1980) has shut more than
350,000square kilometres of the Atlantic
to bottom trawling. The power of RFMOs
could be increased to enable the creation of
broader, scaled-up conservation agreements
for the high seas.
Wild places are facing the same extinction
crisis as species. Similarly to species extinc-
tion, the erosion of the wilderness is essen-
tially irreversible. Research has shown that
the first impacts of industry on wilderness
areas are the most damaging11. And once it
has been eroded, an intact ecosystem and its
many values can never be fully restored.
As US President Lyndon B. Johnson
observed when he signed the US Wilder-
ness Act in 1964, “If future generations are
to remember us with gratitude rather than
contempt … we must leave them a glimpse of
the world as it was in the beginning.
Already we have lost so much. We must
grasp this opportunity to secure the wilder-
ness before it disappears forever.
James E. M. Watson is a professor of
conservation science at the University of
Queensland, and director of the Science
and Research Initiative at the Wildlife
Conservation Society, Bronx, New York,
USA. Oscar Venter is an associate professor
at the Natural Resource and Environmental
Studies Institute, University of Northern
British Columbia, Prince George, Canada.
Jasmine Lee is a PhD candidate in the
School of Biological Sciences, University of
Queensland, StLucia, Australia. Kendall R.
Jones is a conservation planning specialist
and John G. Robinson is executive vice-
president of conservation and science at
the Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx,
New York, USA. Hugh P. Possingham is
chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy,
Arlington, Virginia, USA. James R. Allan
is a postdoctoral research fellow in the
School of Biological Sciences, University of
Queensland, StLucia, Australia.
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Area (millions of square kilometres)
0 10
Other (n = 78)
United Kingdom
New Zealand
United States
15 205
Terrestrial Marine
Terrestrial Marine
Boreal forest (Canada)
Desert (Australia)
Okavango Delta
Twenty countries contain 94% of the world’s wilderness, excluding Antarctica and the high seas.
The top 5 alone contain more than
70% of the world’s wilderness.
77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean has been modied by
the direct eects of human activities.
Earth’s remaining wilderness areas are becoming increasingly important buers against changing conditions
in the Anthropocene. Yet they aren’t an explicit target in international policy frameworks.
Arctic tundra (Alaska)
30 | NATURE | VOL 563 | 1 NOVEMBER 2018
... Detailed information on the distribution of species of conservation concern and of the remaining wild areas (i.e., where human influence is low) are crucial for advancing forest conservation and management (Maxwell et al., 2020;Meyer et al., 2015;Watson et al., 2018). Having this information in map form is valuable for guiding regional conservation planning and management actions (Martinuzzi et al., 2018). ...
... Having this information in map form is valuable for guiding regional conservation planning and management actions (Martinuzzi et al., 2018). Previous efforts at identifying priority areas for conservation have typically focused on identifying areas based on either species distributions (Brum et al., 2017;Jenkins et al., 2015;Politi et al., 2020) or location of the wildest areas Riggio et al., 2020;Watson et al., 2018), but rarely both, and studies incorporating either or both sets of information into ongoing, national conservation strategies are rare (Martinuzzi et al., 2018;Schmidt-Traub, 2021). ...
Closing the research-implementation gap is key for advancing biodiversity conservation. One approach is to generate ecologically relevant spatial datasets that integrate easily with existing management plans. Our goal was to identify priority forest conservation areas in Argentina by combining species distributions, human footprint data, and existing forest zoning. We: (i) mapped potential habitat distributions of 70 plant and animal species associated with forests, and of recognized social and ecological importance, (ii) combined the species distributions with human footprint data to identify priority conservation areas, and (iii) evaluated the juxta-position of our priority conservation areas with current forest management zones. We found that priority conservation areas (i.e., high number of species and low human footprint) are poorly protected by the current zoning scheme. While the Andean-Patagonian region had a substantial portion (57 %) of priority conservation areas in high protection zones, in four other forest regions we evaluated, only 16-37 % of priority areas had high protection levels. Of great concern are the Chaco and Espinal regions, where 36 % and 39 %, respectively, of priority conservation areas are in low protection zones, where conversion to other uses (row crops, livestock) is allowed. Our results provide new spatial information to managers and conservationists highlighting where current forest zoning performs well, and where it may warrant re-evaluation. Overall, our study highlights the value of integrating species distributions and human footprint maps into existing land use plans to guide conservation efforts in data-poor countries, and is an example of a strategy for closing the research-implementation gap.
... Glaciers and emerging post-glacial ecosystems have a crucial-and partly unrecognized and unquantified-part to play when climate change, nature decline and freshwater scarcity intensify 5,15,28,58 . Their functional importance will grow further as global artificialization continues and most ecosystems are pushed beyond their resilience capacities 14,21,29,51 . In addition to their overarching role to support life conditions from a local to global scale, glaciers and emerging post-glacial ecosystems are mostly located on lands owned and governed by local or public communities 8,27 . ...
... Activities and infrastructures hence multiply on these vulnerable ecosystems, sometimes privatizing their areas or resources as a result of local, short-term or sectorial visions, in which their critical bio-ecocentric roles are either considered marginally or not considered. In parallel, because the link between cryosphere and biosphere remains barely recognized and because, although increasing, human activities are still limited in glaciers and deglaciated areas, these ecosystems received little attention in nature conservation policies 27,28,51,58,61 . Therefore, for the general interest and to hinder the increase in unsustainable uses and irreversible damages 8 , it seems urgent to secure the existence, functioning and values of these common goods by developing an integrative approach to better understand, consider and protect them. ...
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... Globally, protected biodiversity conservation areas, which include both natural and cultural heritage conservation (SCBD, 2004), are regarded as one of the most effective tools for protecting natural resources (Muhumuza & Balkwill, 2013;Possingham et al., 2006;Schulze et al., 2017;Watson et al., 2014Watson et al., , 2018. Of great importance is the network of protected areas in South Africa, reported to sustain a relatively high abundance of bird species (Duckworth & Altwegg, 2018). ...
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... Empowering LandDCs to manage their lands for biodiversity is therefore an important strategy for transitioning to sustainability in an equitable manner, ensuring socioeconomic and nutritional security in a changing climate while also reducing the opportunity costs to conservation (6,34,58,81,82). However, certain vulnerable habitats and the last remaining wilderness areas might only retain their extraordinary values with more strict protection schemes (83)(84)(85)(86). Strict protection and social conservation therefore represent diverse tools at opposite ends of a spectrum, and each is suitable in different local contexts. ...
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... Initial approaches to identify such areas sought hotspots of various aspects of biodiversity such as species richness or endemism. [17][18][19][20] Other approaches highlight the protection of areas that will limit further impacts of global change on biodiversity, for example by identifying remaining ecologically intact ecosystems 21 or sites of high irrecoverable carbon storage. 22,23 Prioritization approaches that focus on more than one objective often combine different conservation goals such as protecting biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem services. ...
Establishing and maintaining protected areas (PAs) is a key action in delivering post-2020 biodiversity targets. PAs often need to meet multiple objectives, ranging from biodiversity protection to ecosystem service provision and climate change mitigation, but available land and conservation funding is limited. Therefore, optimizing resources by selecting the most beneficial PAs is vital. Here, we advocate for a flexible and transparent approach to selecting PAs based on multiple objectives, and illustrate this with a decision support tool on a global scale. The tool allows weighting and prioritization of different conservation objectives according to user-specified preferences as well as real-time comparison of the outcome. Applying the tool across 1,346 terrestrial PAs, we demonstrate that decision makers frequently face trade-offs among conflicting objectives, e.g., between species protection and ecosystem integrity. Nevertheless, we show that transparent decision support tools can reveal synergies and trade-offs associated with PA selection, thereby helping to illuminate and resolve land-use conflicts embedded in divergent societal and political demands and values.
... The Anthropocene is having a huge influence on our planet, with 77% of terrestrial ecosystems (excluding Antarctica) being affected ( Watson et al., 2018 ), and the few remaining intact areas, so called wilderness, are increasingly threatened by human activities. Human Footprint represents the human pressure imposed on the ecoenvironment by changing ecological patterns and processes ( Mu et al., 2022 ). ...
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Technical Report
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This report assesses the economic value of ecosystem benefits provided by the Seal River Watershed, a large pristine region located in Northern Manitoba, Canada. The Seal River Watershed is not impacted by dams, industrial development, or forestry. It maintains clean water, is home to abundant wildlife, and supports the livelihoods and culture of Dene, Cree, and Inuit people. To stop and reverse global biodiversity loss and limit climate warming, it is critical to protect the world's last remaining intact regions like the Seal River Watershed.
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While the ecological impacts of fishing the waters beyond national jurisdiction (the “high seas”) have been widely studied, the economic rationale is more difficult to ascertain because of scarce data on the costs and revenues of the fleets that fish there. Newly compiled satellite data and machine learning now allow us to track individual fishing vessels on the high seas in near real time. These technological advances help us quantify high-seas fishing effort, costs, and benefits, and assess whether, where, and when high-seas fishing makes economic sense. We characterize the global high-seas fishing fleet and report the economic benefits of fishing the high seas globally, nationally, and at the scale of individual fleets. Our results suggest that fishing at the current scale is enabled by large government subsidies, without which as much as 54% of the present high-seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable at current fishing rates. The patterns of fishing profitability vary widely between countries, types of fishing, and distance to port. Deep-sea bottom trawling often produces net economic benefits only thanks to subsidies, and much fishing by the world’s largest fishing fleets would largely be unprofitable without subsidies and low labor costs. These results support recent calls for subsidy and fishery management reforms on the high seas.
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As the terrestrial human footprint continues to expand, the amount of native forest that is free from significant damaging human activities is in precipitous decline. There is emerging evidence that the remaining intact forest supports an exceptional confluence of globally significant environmental values relative to degraded forests, including imperilled biodiversity, carbon sequestration and storage, water provision, indigenous culture and the maintenance of human health. Here we argue that maintaining and, where possible, restoring the integrity of dwindling intact forests is an urgent priority for current global efforts to halt the ongoing biodiversity crisis, slow rapid climate change and achieve sustainability goals. Retaining the integrity of intact forest ecosystems should be a central component of proactive global and national environmental strategies, alongside current efforts aimed at halting deforestation and promoting reforestation.
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Wilderness areas, defined as areas free of industrial scale activities and other human pressures which result in significant biophysical disturbance, are important for biodiversity conservation and sustaining the key ecological processes underpinning planetary life-support systems. Despite their importance, wilderness areas are being rapidly eroded in extent and fragmented. Here we present the most up-to-date temporally inter-comparable maps of global terrestrial wilderness areas, which are essential for monitoring changes in their extent, and for proactively planning conservation interventions to ensure their preservation. Using maps of human pressure on the natural environment for 1993 and 2009, we identified wilderness as all ‘pressure free’ lands with a contiguous area >10,000 km2. These places are likely operating in a natural state and represent the most intact habitats globally. We then created a regionally representative map of wilderness following the well-established ‘Last of the Wild’ methodology; which identifies the 10% area with the lowest human pressure within each of Earth’s 60 biogeographic realms, and identifies the ten largest contiguous areas, along with all contiguous areas >10,000 km2.
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Global biodiversity loss is a critical environmental crisis, yet the lack of spatial data on biodiversity threats has hindered conservation strategies. Theory predicts that abrupt biodiversity declines are most likely to occur when habitat availability is reduced to very low levels in the landscape (10-30%). Alternatively, recent evidence indicates that biodiversity is best conserved by minimizing human intrusion into intact and relatively unfragmented landscapes. Here we use recently available forest loss data to test deforestation effects on International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List categories of extinction risk for 19,432 vertebrate species worldwide. As expected, deforestation substantially increased the odds of a species being listed as threatened, undergoing recent upgrading to a higher threat category and exhibiting declining populations. More importantly, we show that these risks were disproportionately high in relatively intact landscapes; even minimal deforestation has had severe consequences for vertebrate biodiversity. We found little support for the alternative hypothesis that forest loss is most detrimental in already fragmented landscapes. Spatial analysis revealed high-risk hot spots in Borneo, the central Amazon and the Congo Basin. In these regions, our model predicts that 121-219 species will become threatened under current rates of forest loss over the next 30 years. Given that only 17.9% of these high-risk areas are formally protected and only 8.9% have strict protection, new large-scale conservation efforts to protect intact forests are necessary to slow deforestation rates and to avert a new wave of global extinctions.
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Humans have altered terrestrial ecosystems for millennia [1], yet wilderness areas still remain as vital refugia where natural ecological and evolutionary processes operate with minimal human disturbance [2-4], underpinning key regional- and planetary-scale functions [5, 6]. Despite the myriad values of wilderness areas-as critical strongholds for endangered biodiversity [7], for carbon storage and sequestration [8], for buffering and regulating local climates [9], and for supporting many of the world's most politically and economically marginalized communities [10]-they are almost entirely ignored in multilateral environmental agreements. This is because they are assumed to be relatively free from threatening processes and therefore are not a priority for conservation efforts [11, 12]. Here we challenge this assertion using new comparable maps of global wilderness following methods established in the original "last of the wild" analysis [13] to examine the change in extent since the early 1990s. We demonstrate alarming losses comprising one-tenth (3.3 million km(2)) of global wilderness areas over the last two decades, particularly in the Amazon (30%) and central Africa (14%). We assess increases in the protection of wilderness over the same time frame and show that these efforts are failing to keep pace with the rate of wilderness loss, which is nearly double the rate of protection. Our findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of wilderness and the unprecedented threats they face and to underscore urgent large-scale, multifaceted actions needed to maintain them.
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Although marine reserves represent one of the most effective management responses to human impacts, their capacity to sustain the same diversity of species, functional roles and biomass of reef fishes as wilderness areas remains questionable, in particular in regions with deep and long-lasting human footprints. Here we show that fish functional diversity and biomass of top predators are significantly higher on coral reefs located at more than 20 h travel time from the main market compared with even the oldest (38 years old), largest (17,500 ha) and most restrictive (no entry) marine reserve in New Caledonia (SouthWestern Pacific). We further demonstrate that wilderness areas support unique ecological values with no equivalency as one gets closer to humans, even in large and well-managed marine reserves. Wilderness areas may therefore serve as benchmarks for management effectiveness and act as the last refuges for the most vulnerable functional roles.
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Tropical forests could offset much of the carbon released from the declining use of fossil fuels, helping to stabilize and then reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations, thereby providing a bridge to a low-fossil-fuel future.
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Human pressures on the ocean are thought to be increasing globally, yet we know little about their patterns of cumulative change, which pressures are most responsible for change, and which places are experiencing the greatest increases. Managers and policymakers require such information to make strategic decisions and monitor progress towards management objectives. Here we calculate and map recent change over 5 years in cumulative impacts to marine ecosystems globally from fishing, climate change, and ocean- and land-based stressors. Nearly 66% of the ocean and 77% of national jurisdictions show increased human impact, driven mostly by climate change pressures. Five percent of the ocean is heavily impacted with increasing pressures, requiring management attention. Ten percent has very low impact with decreasing pressures. Our results provide large-scale guidance about where to prioritize management efforts and affirm the importance of addressing climate change to maintain and improve the condition of marine ecosystems.
As human activities increasingly threaten biodiversity [1, 2], areas devoid of intense human impacts are vital refugia [3]. These wilderness areas contain high genetic diversity, unique functional traits, and endemic species [4-7]; maintain high levels of ecological and evolutionary connectivity [8-10]; and may be well placed to resist and recover from the impacts of climate change [11-13]. On land, rapid declines in wilderness [3] have led to urgent calls for its protection [3, 14]. In contrast, little is known about the extent and protection of marine wilderness [4, 5]. Here we systematically map marine wilderness globally by identifying areas that have both very little impact (lowest 10%) from 15 anthropogenic stressors and also a very low combined cumulative impact from these stressors. We discover that ∼13% of the ocean meets this definition of global wilderness, with most being located in the high seas. Recognizing that human influence differs across ocean regions, we repeat the analysis within each of the 16 ocean realms [15]. Realm-specific wilderness extent varies considerably, with >16 million km2 (8.6%) in the Warm Indo-Pacific, down to <2,000 km2 (0.5%) in Temperate Southern Africa. We also show that the marine protected area estate holds only 4.9% of global wilderness and 4.1% of realm-specific wilderness, very little of which is in biodiverse ecosystems such as coral reefs. Proactive retention of marine wilderness should now be incorporated into global strategies aimed at conserving biodiversity and ensuring that large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue. VIDEO ABSTRACT.