Two-Year Study Identifies Earth's Most Pristine Regions

12/3/2002

Wilderness Areas Span the Globe But Are Increasingly Under Threat

A team of more than 200 international scientists and researchers have completed a two-year global study to identify the Earth's most pristine and untouched regions. Their findings have been compiled in a new book, Wilderness: Earth�s Last Wild Places.

The 37 Wilderness Areas include habitats on every continent, ranging from the Amazon rainforest, teeming with more than 30,000 endemic plant species, to the barren deserts of the Sahara. Only areas greater than 10,000 km2 with at least 70 percent of their original vegetation intact qualified. In most cases, they have less than five people per square kilometer.

"These Wilderness Areas are critical to the survival of the planet; they help regulate weather patterns and rainfall, and are major storehouses for biodiversity," said co-author Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International. "Unfortunately, they are increasingly threatened by population growth, encroaching agriculture and extraction activities. Barely seven percent of them enjoy some form of protection."

Excluding urban centers, Wilderness Areas cover 46 percent of the globe�s land surface but are occupied by only 2.4 percent of the world's population. Nineteen of the areas have remarkably low population densities - approximately one person per square kilometer or less - and these are often indigenous communities.

"Since so few people live in these largely intact areas, we have a unique and historic opportunity to protect these high priority regions," said Peter Seligmann, CI's Chairman and CEO. "In doing so, we can also support indigenous communities that are often struggling to maintain their traditional way of life."

The Americas are home to the largest number of Wilderness Areas, with 16 unique regions that range from Patagonia in southern Argentina to the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada. Africa has eight Wilderness Areas, including the dense forests of the Congo and the expansive plains of the Serengeti. Australia and New Guinea share six areas,

Europe has three areas and Asia two. The Arabian Desert and Antarctica are also considered Wilderness Areas.

Five of the regions hold more than 1,500 endemic plant species making them "high biodiversity Wilderness Areas," including the three largest tropical rainforests: South America's Amazon, Central Africa's Congo Forest and the Pacific island of New Guinea. Southern Africa�s Miombo-Mopane woodlands and grasslands, and the deserts of northern Mexico and southwestern U.S. are also on the high biodiversity list.

The largest wilderness area is the Boreal forest, which forms a 16-million km2 ring just beneath the Arctic Circle that stretches across Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and Russia. The smallest site - with 10,000 km2 - is the Sundarbans, the world's largest tidal mangrove forest, which straddles India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges River.

Wilderness Areas is the third in a series of books, which also includes Megadiversity and Hotspots. With the publication of Hotspots in 1999, researchers identified 25 sites that represent only 1.4 percent of the Earth�s land surface but contain more than 60 percent of its terrestrial species diversity. Those areas are under extreme threat and are focal points for CI's conservation efforts.

"We have a narrow window of opportunity to keep these Wilderness Areas from becoming fragmented and fragile hotspots," said Gustavo Fonseca, the Executive Director of CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS), which was largely responsible for the book's analysis. "If we are to succeed as conservationists, we have to take a two-track approach and protect the biodiversity-rich hotspots and keep our Wilderness Areas healthy."

The new book, a collaborative effort between CI and Agrupaci�n Sierra Madre, features 576 pages of text and vivid photographs depicting rare species and remarkable places around the world. CI's Global Conservation Fund helped finance the research project and the book is published by CEMEX, a global company based in Mexico. Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places is available through Conservation International's website www.conservation.org.

Images, maps, interviews, and information about each Wilderness Area available upon request.

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