A team of researchers from University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups have found that an area of biologically important “intact” land the size of Mexico has been swallowed up by human development since the year 2000.
Publishing their results in the journal One Earth, the team used the “Human Footprint,” to measure humanity’s impact on land using metrics such as agriculture, infrastructure, and population. They found an astounding 1.89 million square kilometers of prime, “intact” land had been lost over the last 20 years.
Most of the losses occurred in in tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannah, and shrubland ecosystems across Asia, South America and Africa, but the rainforests of Southeast Asia also underwent rapid modification.
Intact land is crucial to life on earth. It contains not only high levels of biodiversity, but also regulates both climate and clean water.
Brooke Williams, lead author from the University of Queensland, said the findings are alarming: “Intact lands are relied on by biodiversity for habitat, and by people for ecosystem services such as climate regulation and clean water. We continue to take these last functioning places for granted, and our results show urgent action is needed to protect those lands that do remain intact.”
The authors say that the results of the study have profound implications for biodiversity that requires intact lands for their continued survival and for humanity who relies on the services that intact ecosystems provide. The results showcase the urgent need to safeguard earth’s last intact ecosystems and that targets must be now be set by nations to ensure no more intact land is lost.
Said the study’s senior authorJames Watsonfrom WCS and the University of Queensland: “Data does not lie. Humanity keeps on shrinking the amount of land that other species need to survive. In a time of rapid climate change, we need to proactively secure the last intact ecosystems on the planet, as these are critical in the fight to stop extinction and halt climate change.”
To facilitate and promote the protection of intact landscapes, the authors have made the human footprint datasets for the years 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2013 publicly available through and free to use through the data repository Dryad https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.3tx95x6d9
Intact ecosystems have been a focus for WCS science for many years, but the work has been given new urgency by the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Work on intactness also includes closely related concepts such as wilderness areas and primary forests.
Header image: ©Kyle Nobrega Forest elephant in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.