What’s in a name? The role of defining ‘wilderness’ in conservation

  • In a recent opinion piece published in the journal Nature, several ecologists question recent efforts to delineate areas of wilderness and intactness around the world to define conservation targets.
  • They argue that it would be better to build broadly supported consensus that includes the perspectives of local and indigenous communities.
  • But the leader of a team that recently mapped out the remaining wilderness on land and in the ocean said that identifying these areas and developing new targets that incorporate their conservation is critical because current international agreements do not prioritize their protection.

Ecosystems in their natural state are disappearing quickly around the globe. On that most scientists agree. But how to stem those losses through conservation is hotly debated. Many believe that the focus should be on identifying what local communities, often recognized as the superior guardians of their environment, see as worth protecting. That local focus, they argue, should supersede the creation of new maps, international targets and definitions for terms like “wilderness” and “intactness.”

“Why do we need another definition?” said Douglas Sheil, a forest ecologist and senior associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Bogor, Indonesia.

An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Tanzania. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

In an opinion piece for the journal Nature published Jan. 23, Sheil and his colleagues argue that a broad consensus exists for facing down climate change, promoting sustainable economic development and shoring up protections of what’s left of the world’s wild spaces. What’s more, existing “frameworks,” such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted at the 2010 meeting for the international Convention on Biodiversity, already help identify priority areas for conservation.

“Creating multiple parallel targets muddies and complicates these efforts,” the researchers write in a related blog post at CIFOR’s Forests News.

They point to several recent efforts to zero in on critical places for conservation. In 2017, a team of remote-sensing scientists at the University of Maryland mapped out blocks of forested land at least 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) in area called intact forest landscapes. They found that globally 7 percent of these intact landscapes disappeared between 2000 and 2013. And in 2018, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and University of Queensland ecologist James Watson led a group of researchers who mapped wilderness areas around the globe that show little to no impact from a set of “human pressures” in blocks that are 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) or larger. Their research showed that only 23 percent of the Earth’s surface and 13 percent of the ocean remain pristine.

A cattle herd in Brazil. Analyses by ecologist James Watson and his colleagues suggest that less than one-quarter of the Earth’s land area remains free from human impacts. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Sheil questioned the benefits of the hard lines that these efforts created, as well as the implications of excluding certain places.

“What does it mean to be a location not on the map?” Sheil said in an email to Mongabay.

He noted that, despite the unique species found in the Foja Mountains of New Guinea and the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale region in Africa’s Congo Basin, neither made it onto Watson’s maps because they don’t meet the 10,000-square-kilometer threshold.

“It just seems a bit too silly to me,” Sheil said, adding that leaders could interpret the fact that these places are missing as a sign that they don’t warrant conservation.

Rainforest along the Mpivie River in Gabon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Watson said Sheil had a “good point.”

“They’re right in a way,” he said. “There’s no map that is correct on wilderness conservation or intactness.”

Still, Watson said the maps weren’t intended to pick out the only places that should be protected to the exclusion of everywhere else. And he said he disagreed that existing targets and maps were enough to guide the protection of what’s left of the world’s biodiverse spaces and functioning ecosystems.

“In no convention, in no international target do we prioritize intactness or securing wilderness,” Watson said. “That’s a travesty.”

Having maps that pinpoint these areas is so crucial, he said, because protecting them from development is both necessary and urgent.

“Once the first road goes in, once the first bloody chainsaw [cut] occurs, these places are lost, they’re gone,” Watson said. “That’s what the science shows.

“If you allow a small amount of erosion to occur, they just get smashed.”

Jungle lowland rainforest reaching the coast of New Guinea. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In Sheil’s view, though, the way these targets are set and the values reflected in these maps don’t include local perspectives, harking back to colonial-era conservation that often ends in failure. The resulting conservation efforts are imposed “as if we live in a world where centralised conservationists are global emperors and pass down judgements to be implemented by their minions.”

“Such injustices cause alienation, distrust and conflict and make conservation harder too,” Sheil said. “We need actions that are locally tailored to local needs and conditions — more bottom up and less top down.”

Watson said those concerns made it important to clearly define what wilderness means.

“The word has connotations that it excludes people,” he said. But their analyses, however, highlight the importance of recognizing the ownership rights of local and indigenous people.

The extent of wilderness on land and at sea by country around the world. Image courtesy of Watson et al., 2018.

Watson also agrees that it’s critical to come to a broadly supported consensus about where to protect and then allowing individual countries to sort out the protection strategy “that best fits their people.” But not plotting out what’s left of the world’s ecosystems in their natural state — in whatever way they’re defined — risks losing them forever, he said.

“Those last intact places are so incredibly important, not just for securing species from extinction, but securing ecological communities, keeping common species common [and] ensuring that ecosystems function in ways that are resilient to climate change,” Watson said.

“Those are things that are not targeted for right now, and we will sleepwalk into a major extinction crisis if we don’t set targets for them now.”

Banner image of a mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus) by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Editor’s note: Mongabay has an ongoing partnership with CIFOR.



Jones, K. R., Klein, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Venter, O., Grantham, H., Kuempel, C. D., … & Watson, J. E. (2018). The location and protection status of Earth’s diminishing marine wilderness. Current Biology, 28(15), 2506-2512.

Potapov, P., Hansen, M. C., Laestadius, L., Turubanova, S., Yaroshenko, A., Thies, C., … Esipova, E. (2017). The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013. Science Advances, 3(1), e1600821.

Sheil, D., Cerutti, P. O., & Martius, C. (2019). Call of the wild: define it or lose it. Nature, 565(7740).

Watson, J. E., Evans, T., Venter, O., Williams, B., Tulloch, A., Stewart, C., … & McAlpine, C. (2018). The exceptional value of intact forest ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1.

Watson, J. E., Venter, O., Lee, J., Jones, K. R., Robinson, J. G., Possingham, H. P., & Allan, J. R. (2018). Protect the last of the wild. Nature, 563, 27-30.

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