for National Geographic News
While freeways and strip malls seem to stretch to the ends of Earth, a new study offers a surprising picture: It shows that nearly half of the planet's land area is still wilderness.
Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of these wild lands is officially protected from the pressures of population growth, agriculture, and other forms of human development.
Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International (CI) and a co-author of the study, called the findings "remarkable."
"The fact that such a large area of the planet is in relatively good shape is good news," he said. "But," he cautioned, "that doesn't mean we can be complacent."
In the two-year study, conducted by CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science with help from the Global Conservation Fund, an international research team of more than 200 scientists identified large areas of land that still harbor at least 70 percent of their original vegetation, along with few human inhabitants. The 37 wilderness areas they examined were scattered across the planet from Africa to the Arctic tundra.
More than half of the wilderness areas examined (19) together total the combined area of the six biggest countries in the world but have extremely low population densities, an average of less than one person per square kilometer (o.4 square mile).
"In that huge area, you have only 0.7 percent of the world's population," said Mittermeier. Yet, he noted, only 7 percent of all the lands surveyed are officially protected.
Five wilderness areasthe Congo forests of Central Africa, New Guinea, the North American deserts, Amazonia, and the Miombo-Mopane woodlands and grasslands of southern Africaare considered "high-biodiversity wilderness areas." Each is a storehouse of endemic vegetation, with at least 1,500 vascular plant species unique to each site.
"There's a huge opportunity here to create new protected areas," Mittermeier said.
What Makes a Wilderness?
Other recent studies have put a different spin on the effects that human activities have had on wilderness areas.
In October, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network issued a map showing that the human presence on Earththe human "footprint"stomps on nearly 83 percent of the planet's land surface.
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