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Global analysis finds nearly half the Earth is still wilderness


Many areas, including North America’s deserts, under severe threat

According to the most comprehensive global analysis ever conducted, wilderness areas still cover close to half the Earth’s land, but contain only a tiny percentage of the world’s population. More than 200 international scientists contributed to the analysis, which will be published in the book, Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places, (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

The 37 wilderness areas identified in the book represent 46 percent of the Earth’s land surface, but are occupied by just 2.4 percent of the world’s population, excluding urban centers. Nine of the wilderness areas fall, at least in part, within the United States.

Although the wilderness areas are still largely intact, they are increasingly threatened by population growth, encroaching agriculture and resource extraction activities. Barely 7 percent of the areas currently enjoy some form of protection.

Nineteen of the wilderness areas have remarkably low population densities – an average of less than one person per square kilometer. Excluding urban centers, these 19 areas represent 38 percent of the Earth’s land surface, but hold only 0.7 percent 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 co-author Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International. "It’s good news that we still have these large tracts of land largely intact and uninhabited, but these areas are increasingly under threat."

The large-format, 576-page book depicts rare species and remarkable places in more than 500 breathtaking color photographs that accompany detailed information regarding the habitat, species and cultural diversity of each wilderness area. The analysis was mainly carried out over the past two years by Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science with support from the Global Conservation Fund.

The wilderness areas include several diverse habitats, ranging from Southern Africa’s Miombo-Mopane Woodlands, with the world’s largest remaining population of African elephants, to the Sonoran and Baja Californian Deserts of Arizona, California and Mexico, with their Gila woodpeckers and giant cacti, to Amazonia’s rainforests, teeming with biodiversity including 30,000 endemic plant species and 122 endemic primate species and subspecies.

To qualify as "wilderness," an area has 70 percent or more of its original vegetation intact, covers at least 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) and most have fewer than five people per square kilometer.

"Wilderness areas are major storehouses of biodiversity, but just as importantly, they provide critical ecosystem services to the planet, including watershed maintenance, pollination and carbon sequestration," said Gustavo Fonseca, Executive Director of CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. "As international debates on climate change and water security continue, these wilderness areas take on even greater importance."

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. The five areas are Amazonia, the Congo Forests of Central Africa, New Guinea, the North American Deserts and the Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Grasslands of Southern Africa.

"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," said Peter Seligmann, CI’s Chairman and CEO. "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."

"As striking as these wilderness numbers are, they only serve to underscore more than ever the critical importance of protecting the biodiversity hotspots, areas which represent only 1.4 percent of the Earth’s landmass but contain more than 60 percent of its terrestrial species," said Mittermeier. "If we are to succeed as conservationists, we have to take a two-pronged approach of protecting the biodiversity hotspots and high-biodiversity wilderness areas simultaneously."

The book is the result of collaboration between Conservation International and Agrupación Sierra Madre, and is published by CEMEX, a Mexican company that also published the first two books in this series, Megadiversity and Hotspots.

Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places is now available through Conservation International ( The University of Chicago Press will accept pre-orders beginning in December (, and the book will be available in bookstores in Spring, 2003.

Conservation International (CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth’s richest regions of plant and animal diversity in the hotspots, major tropical wilderness areas and key marine ecosystems. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., CI works in more than 30 countries on four continents. For more information about CI’s programs, visit

Also Available: Images, b-roll, maps, interviews, and specific information about each wilderness area available upon request.

About the Authors:

Dr. Russell Mittermeier, a world-renowned primatologist, is the president of Consevation International. Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier is a marine biologist and professional photographer. Patricio Robles Gil is president of Agrupación Sierra Madre. Dr. Gustavo Fonseca is the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International. Dr. Thomas Brooks heads CI’s Conservation Synthesis Department. John Pilgrim is a Biodiversity Analyst with CI, and William Konstant is Director of Special Programs in the President’s Office at CI.
The 37 wilderness areas organized by continent:
(Areas within the US are denoted by *.)

Appalachian Mountains* (See note.)
The Arctic Tundra*
The Boreal Forest*
The Greater Chihuahuan Desert*
The Colorado Plateau*
The Mojave Desert*
Pacific Coastal Forests of Alaska & Canada*
Northern Rocky Mountains*
The Sonoran and Baja Californian Deserts*

Bañados del Este
The Gran Chaco
Coastal Deserts of Peru and Chile
The Llanos
The Pantanal
Magellanic Subpolar Rainforests

The Congo Forests of Central Africa
Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Grasslands
The Namib Desert
The Okavango
The Sahara/Sahel
The Serengeti
The Sudd

The Arabian Deserts
The Arctic Tundra*
The Boreal Forest*
Central Asian Deserts
The Sundarbans

Arnhem Land
Australian Deserts
Cape York Peninsula
New Guinea


The Arctic Tundra*
The Boreal Forest*
European Mountains (See note.)

Note: The Appalachians and European Mountains are included in the book for comparative purposes, although their human population densities and remaining intact habitat do not meet the criteria for wilderness.

Brad Phillips | EurekAlert!
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