Just 3% Of Earth's Ecosystems Remain Intact, New Study Suggests | TOTUM
Ben HaywardApril 14th
2021

A mere 3% of the world’s land remains ‘ecologically intact’ a new study suggests.

Defined as having ‘healthy populations of all original animals and undisturbed habitat’ the fragments of wilderness that remain undamaged by humans are now incredibly scarce, reports the Guardian. 

Mostly located in parts of the Amazon and Congo tropical forests, east Siberian and northern Canadian forests and tundra, and the Sahara (although the analysis did not include Antarctica) the researchers have pointed to the introduction of non-native, invasive species as a major factor in the ecological decline. 

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However, reintroducing a small number of important species to some damaged areas, such as elephants or wolves, could actually restore up to 20% of the world’s land to ecological intactness, the study suggests.

The study combines maps of human damage to habitats with maps showing where animals have either completely disappeared from their original ranges or their numbers are too low to maintain the health of the ecosystem.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, revealed that many of the intact areas are in territories managed by indigenous communities.

However some experts say the analysis underestimates the intact areas, as the ranges of animals in the past aren’t known and the new maps do not take account of the impacts of the climate crisis.

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The study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Plumptre, from the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat in Cambridge, said: “Much of what we consider as intact habitat is missing species that have been hunted [and poached] by people, or lost because of invasive species or disease.

“It’s fairly scary, because it shows how unique places like the Serengeti are, which actually have functioning and fully intact ecosystems.

“We’re in the UN decade of ecosystem restoration now, but it is focusing on degraded habitat, let’s also think about restoring species so that we can try and build up these areas where we’ve got ecologically intact ecosystems.

“It might be possible to increase the ecological intact area back to up to 20% through the targeted reintroductions of species that have been lost in areas where human impact is still low, provided the threats to their survival can be addressed.”

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Prof James Watson at the University of Queensland, Australia, said: “This study undervalues many efforts by ecosystem scientists to map and save ecologically intact places across the planet. It uses maps for species that are basically best guesses, meaning the message of where ecosystems are actually still pretty much intact is clearly minimised.”

Dr Plumptre acknowledged that the range maps were relatively crude and that the 3% figure was a ‘ballpark estimate’ however he was keen to pint out that this was just the beginning of a wider potential study, and that the focus could now move to specific regions where more detailed human impact data and species data could be used to identify ecologically intact sites. 

“Putting efforts into conserving these [intact] places is very important,” Dr Plumptre said. “They are so rare and special, and show what the world was like before humans had any major impact, helping us measure how much we’ve lost.”

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