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Thursday, December 11, 2008

International Wilderness,Current estimates of wilderness

At the forefront of the international wilderness movement has been The WILD Foundation, its founder Dr. Ian Player and its network of sister and partner organizations around the globe. The pioneer World Wilderness Congress in 1977 introduced the wilderness concept as an issue of international importance, and began the process of defining the term in biological and social contexts. Today, this work is continued by many international groups who still look to the World Wilderness Congress as the international venue for wilderness and to The WILD Foundation network for wilderness tools and action. The WILD Foundation also publishes the standard references for wilderness professionals and others involved in the issues: Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values (3rd Edition 2002; 4th Edition in press), the International Journal of Wilderness, A Handbook on International Wilderness Law and Policy (2008) and Protecting Wild Nature on Native Lands (2008) are the backbone of information and management tools for international wilderness issues.

The Wilderness Task Force within the World Commission on Protected Areas (WTF/WCPA) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) plays a critical role in defining legal and management guidelines for wilderness at the international level and is also a clearing-house for information on wilderness issues. The IUCN Protected Areas Classification System, defines wilderness as “A large area of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition (Category 1b).” The WILD Foundation founded the WTF/WCPA in 2002 and remains co-chair.

Current estimates of wilderness

According to a major study, Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places, carried out by Conservation International, 46% of the world's land mass is wilderness. For purposes of this report, "wilderness" was defined as an area that "has 70 percent or more of its original vegetation intact, covers at least 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) and must have fewer than five people per square kilometer." However, an IUCN/UNEP report published in 2003, found that only 10.9% of the world's land mass is currently a Category 1 Protected Area, that is, either a strict nature reserve (5.5%) or protected wilderness (5.4%). Such areas remain relatively untouched by humans. Of course, there are large tracts of lands in National Parks and other protected areas that would also qualify as wilderness. However, many protected areas have some degree of human modification or activity, so a definitive estimate of true wilderness is difficult.

The Wildlife Conservation Society generated a human footprint using a number of indicators, the absence of which indicate wildness: human population density, human access via roads and rivers, human infrastructure for agriculture and settlements and the presence of industrial power (lights visible from space). The society estimates that 26 percent of the earth's land mass falls into the category of "Last of the wild." The wildest regions of the world include the tundra, the taiga, the Amazonian rain forest, the Tibetan Plateau, the Australian outback and deserts such as the Sahara, and the Gobi.

It should be noted that the percentage of land area designated "wilderness" does not reflect "quality" of remaining wilderness, part of which is barren areas with low biodiversity. Of the last natural wilderness areas, the taiga — which is mostly wilderness — represents 11 percent of the total land mass in the Northern Hemisphere. Tropical rainforest represent a further 7 percent of the world's land base. Estimates of the earth's remaining wilderness underscore the rate at which these lands are being developed, with dramatic declines in biodiversity as a consequence.

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