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Rising world population threatening essential wilderness areas

WASHINGTON – Rising world population is increasingly threatening wilderness areas around the globe considered essential to biodiversity, an exhaustive new study by 200 international scientists has revealed.

The 37 wilderness areas represent 46 per cent of the Earth’s surface area, but contain only 2.4 per cent of the world’s population. With agricultural development and the search for natural resources on the rise, flora and fauna rich areas from the Amazon basin to the Sahara desert are imperiled, the study, released late Wednesday, said.

“It’s good news that we still have these large tracts of land largely intact and uninhabited, but these areas are increasingly under threat,” study co-author Russell Mittermeier, who heads Conservation International, said.

Barely seven per cent of the areas currently enjoy some form of protection, according to the study, presented at the Washington headquarters of the National Geographic Society.

Researchers worked for two years on the most ambitious environmental study to date. To qualify as “wilderness,” an area must have 70 per cent or more of its original vegetation intact, cover at least 10,000 square kilometres (nearly 4,000 square miles) and have fewer than five people per square kilometre.

Only five wilderness areas are considered “high-biodiversity wilderness areas,” because they contain at least 1,500 endemic vascular plant species, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.

Three of them comprise the largest tropical forests in the world: Amazonia, the Congo Forests of central Africa and New Guinea.

The other two areas surprised scientists for their biological wealth. The Miombo-Mopane woodlands and grasslands of southern Africa holds the second-largest concentration of mammals, reptiles and birds. The North American deserts in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States are extremely rich in plant life, especially endemic cacti.

The largest wilderness area is the northern forests covering some 16 million square kilometres (6.2 million square miles), stretching just below the Arctic circle through Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and Russia.

The smallest area of some 10 square kilometres (nearly four square miles) is the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove in the world in the Ganges delta, between India and Bangladesh.

Nineteen of the wilderness areas have remarkably low population densities — an average of less than one person per square kilometre. Excluding urban centres, these 19 areas represent 38 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, but hold only 0.7 per cent of the planet’s population.

“These very low density areas represent a landmass equivalent to the six largest countries on Earth combined — Russia, Canada, China, the United States, Brazil and Australia — but have within them the population of only three large cities, a truly remarkable finding,” said Mittermeier.

Peter Seligmann, CI’s Chairman and CEO, said the study provides some hope for Earth’s environment.

“These wilderness areas are important for any global strategy of protecting biodiversity, since we have the opportunity to save large tracts of land at relatively low costs,” he said.

“The areas are also critical for Earth’s remaining indigenous groups, which often want to protect their traditional ways of life from the unwanted by-products of modern society,” Seligmann said.

“The challenge of protecting life on Earth is big but truly achievable. We have no choice but to act aggressively and smartly,” he added.

The complete list of 37 wilderness areas is available online at www.conservation.org.

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