Is the world running out of wilderness?

According to a new study published in Current Biology, every single corner of the globe is experiencing a shocking loss of wilderness — over 10 per cent in only 20 years.

Every single corner of the globe is losing wilderness — over 10 per cent has disappeared in 20 years

Most of the measured wilderness loss has been in the Amazon and in West African jungles, where human encroachment for pastureland and resource extraction is at an all-time high. (The Associated Press)

If you don't have weekend plans yet, you may want to consider running into the wilderness.

According to a new study published in Current Biology, every single corner of the globe is experiencing a shocking loss of wilderness — over 10 per cent in only 20 years.

How much wilderness has the world lost?

The measured amount is 3.3 million square kilometres — about the size of two Alaskas. In Canadian terms, that's almost 600 Prince Edward Islands or five Albertas.

Researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia say most of the global wilderness loss is in South America around the Amazon, and in Africa where human encroachment for pasture lands and resource extraction is at an all time high.

The scale of loss in those areas is staggering. Up to 30 per cent of wilderness in the Amazon basin has disappeared in the past two decades.

And Canada is not immune. According to researchers, we've lost wilderness areas all across the country — much of it in the North, but also basically anywhere in Canada with vast expanses of forest and wildlife.

Why is wilderness so important?

The senior author of the study, Oscar Venter, said the value of wild spaces is hard to overstate. In areas where human development has encroached on biologically rich landscapes, wildlife is often put in serious peril.

University of Northern British Columbia researcher Oscar Venter was the senior author of the newly released study. (Courtesy Oscar Venter)

"They really represent the last refuge for many of the world's endangered species," said Venter, "really the last places that they're holding on is in the wilderness."

Humans rely on wilderness, too, and not just for its inherent environmental and economic value. 

"[Wilderness is] really the last home and livelihood for many of the world's most economically and politically marginalized people. A lot of the world's Indigenous cultures live in or use wilderness areas in often traditional ways."

What's the difference between wilderness protection and habitat protection?

When it comes to endangered species and discussions of habitat destruction, we often focus on either very unique habitats or biodiversity hotspots. But just because an area is wild doesn't mean something is officially endangered there, or that it is particularly biodiverse. 

The permafrost in Canada's North isn't bursting at the seams with dense wildlife or endangered species, but the vast expanses are crucial to mitigating climate change. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Take, for instance, the permafrost in Canada's North. It's not exactly bursting at the seams with dense wildlife or even endangered species, but the vast expanses of tundra in Canada are crucial to mitigating climate change.

Permafrost acts as a huge carbon sink. If it's destroyed or removed because of human encroachment, massive amounts of carbon are liberated into the atmosphere. 

How did the researchers measure the area of wilderness lost?

The areas highlighted in red have been lost in the past two decades. (Current Biology)

It wasn't easy. Researchers first had to define what they meant by wilderness: areas free of any human disturbance, basically an untouched ecosystem. In Canada, think areas like the heart of the Rocky Mountains or the Arctic tundra. That means no roads, few people per square kilometre and no cities, agriculture or pastures nearby. 

Researchers then compared their measurements from 17 years ago to today. Essentially, they considered the entire Earth wilderness asked the question: how much human encroachment is there?  

The answer: just 23 per cent of the entire surface of the Earth is considered true wilderness, compared to 33 per cent one generation ago.

What does this mean for conservation efforts?

For one thing, it suggests our conservation efforts to date haven't really worked. The research indicates we should maybe focus on a broader picture of what should be protected.

The problem is that protecting "wilderness" is a tough sell. It's much easier to say, 'don't cut this part of the forest down because an adorable cuddly panda lives there'.

At this point, there is no major global agreement or policy in place that protects wilderness over discrete ecosystems or areas. We have to realize that when an ecosystem is gone, it's gone. It is easier to restore an endangered animal from a captive population than to replace an ecosystem that took a millennium to build and balance.

The amount of wilderness we've lost — 10 per cent in 17 years — is staggering. If this pace keeps up, we'll be without pristine ecosystems in a decade.

But if there's one hopeful thing that this study does say, it's that it's not too late — there's still time to protect the planet in a way that will truly have a lasting impact.


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of


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