OBITUARY Thomas Steitz,
ribosome Nobel laureate,
CORRESPONDENCE Staff at the FAO
can advise on data analysis
and interpretation p.35
HISTORY How the CIA
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 3.3million 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-
In 2016, we led an international team of
scientists to map the world’s remaining
. 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
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 Earth’s 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 world’s 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
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 Earth’s 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
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
1square 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.
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
tion and extreme
prevented the lev-
els of degradation
where. But invasive
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-
tectedareas 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
in the Ross Sea.
1 NOVEMBER 2018 | VOL 563 | NATURE | 29
that enable the
private sector to
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-
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
350,000square 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, StLucia, 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, StLucia, Australia.
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Area (millions of square kilometres)
Other (n = 78)
Boreal forest (Canada)
THE WILDEST COUNTRIES
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.
THE HUMAN FOOTPRINT
77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean has been modied by
the direct eects of human activities.
Earth’s remaining wilderness areas are becoming increasingly important buers against changing conditions
in the Anthropocene. Yet they aren’t an explicit target in international policy frameworks.
Arctic tundra (Alaska)
SOURCE: REFS 2 & 3
30 | NATURE | VOL 563 | 1 NOVEMBER 2018