Wisdom//

Last Wilderness: Why Protect Wild Places We Hardly Ever Go?

Let's act now before it's too late.

Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images

Over 80% of the planet’s land surface is now experiencing measurable human impacts. Only the depths of the oceans persist largely unstudied and unexploited. For the first time, our entire world is bending under the weight of one species – our cities, mines, dams and suburban developments. We are unprecedented. Since 1990, we have wiped out another 10% of our last-remaining wilderness areas. Over 30% of the Amazon Basin gone in 25 years. A total area twice the size of Alaska no longer considered to be ecologically-intact and undisturbed. Less than 20 million square miles or 7,5 billion acres of wilderness remain – about 20% of Earth’s total land mass. By 2030, the only wild places that remain will be those landscapes we protect now. Over the next 10-15 years we need to make an unprecedented investment in the preservation of wilderness around the world. We all need to self-realise a fundamental truth. Wilderness is our natural habitat too, and wildness is a basic human right.

There is no doubt that our world is in crisis. As our shared oceans acidify and choke on plastics, every year sets new heat records. We are experiencing catastrophic and irreversible losses every day. Unbeknownst to most of us, the rate of extinction today is 1,000 times faster than previously experienced. Today, in 2018, an estimated 200 unique species go extinct every day. Never to be seen again. A species is lost, on average, every 7 minutes, day and night. A rhino is shot every 6 hours, an elephant every 15 minutes, and a pangolin, the world’s most hunted and traded wild mammal, is killed every 3 minutes. Species cannot be restored or recreated, only destroyed. We are this “Sixth Extinction” because we left no safe space for millions of species to sustainably co-exist.

Did we see this coming? Imagine a large fish pond with one lily pad in the centre. By the end of day 2 there are two lily pads, by day 3 there are four lily pads, and so on, doubling every day that passes, ending on Day 30 when the pond is completely covered by this invasive lily. When was the pond half covered with lilies? Day 29. Everything probably looked fine in the pond on the day before the lilies took over. The fish were happy as they could be and everything seemed in balance. Without any direct sunlight all other large plants and fish died in the days that followed Day 30. Then, the ecosystem itself collapsed, and the lilies died. My fellow humans, we have just lived through day 29, and have woken up on Day 30. We have minutes left to act. It is time to reflect on what we value most?

In the 1950s, there were 1 million lions in Africa. Today, there are less than 20,000 wild lions remaining in the whole world. Fewer than 7,000 cheetah, the fastest animal alive, remain in the wild. Astonishingly, there are estimated to be half as many great white sharks (made famous by the film “Jaws”) as there are wild cheetah, with an estimated 3,500 remaining today. The WWF logo has taught us that giant pandas are an Endangered species, but an estimated wild population of 1,700 is less than the number of Facebook friends you have. Ring-fenced by people and agriculture, and threatened by disease and climate change, only 800 mountain gorillas survive in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just 800. They are Critically Endangered.

To put this into perspective, there are more Van Gogh paintings known to be in circulation, over 900, than there are living mountain gorillas. Just a few years ago, the “Portrait of Joseph Roulin” sold for $115 million. Joseph worked for a railway company in the south of France, and was a friend to Van Gogh. A masterful portrait now considered to be of great value. A single similar “investment” in mountain gorillas, as a species, would probably secure their future in the wild. An endowment of this size would effectively give them human rights. Imagine being able to make an investment and sit on the “board” that represents the interests of mountain gorillas to the world, buys up land and protects them. Just imagine that for a second. There are more questions than there are answers, but it has become clear that we need to rethink what we consider to be valuable.

Natural disasters are becoming more intense, and more frequent. Mass human migration, incredible violence and conflict, terror and extremism, nuclear threat, water scarcity and famine, and more and more frequent xenophobic attacks across the developed world, are all very bad signs. We are living in unprecedented times. The beginning or the end of the “enlightenment”. As a scientist, conservationist, forester, explorer and mammal, I know that we cannot compute or even fully-understand the actual functioning of the complex, connected “ecosystems” that support life as we know it. In the words of John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” We need to gather the necessary baseline data to start mapping out the millions of connections and co-dependences between ecosystems, species, cycles, processes, niches, and even isolated dead ends of creativity. Ecosystems are ceasing to function properly everyday, and those that depend on them suffer. These losses are happening on an unimaginable scale – oceans and river basins, not bays and streams.

As an ecologist, I know that we cannot engineer functioning ecosystems that support biodiversity. This is far too complex and takes decades. We are investing in, and getting better at, the fertilized, bio-engineered and periodically-poisoned monocultures we spread across the planet to feed and resource ourselves. We are leaving no room for other species most places we live, because we like things to be guaranteed and safe to use. We are told about the impacts of the mass production of products like red meat, palm oil, corn, soy, tobacco, tea and coffee, but we continue to consume them in huge volumes, as if out of control, as if addicted.

I am a Xennial, born between 1977 and 1984, and have this to say to fellow living generations: “It is going to be hard. We are going to have to give up a lot and share with greater enthusiasm, to survive.” We need to start treating other people, all other people, as if our personal well-being depended on theirs. In fact, we need to treat all other creatures like our lives depended on them. The surviving wildlife in our cities and towns are being shocked, caught, shot at, run over, and poisoned. Raccoons, squirrels, pigeons, possums, polar bears and tigers have no safe space to live. Insects, most importantly bees, are disappearing in a fog of poison and pollution, as the bacterial communities that populate our bodies shift and change due to self-imposed isolation using deadly chemicals and antibiotics. Nature is adapting, shifting and adjusting with outbreaks of Ebola and the plague, and the continued spread of HIV/AIDS across the developing world. Again, these are all bad signs. Our fish pond is just about to go dark, and any organisms that are a burden to surrounding wildlife will have to go. That includes us.

From this point forward, we really cannot afford to make any mistakes. It is most likely wise, or just properly-informed, to have a back-up plan, a “lifeboat” ready. However, to make going to the Moon or Mars seem more important than cleaning our oceans and creating new protected areas gives people the impression that the leading minds of our time either think there is no threat or know that we are doomed. Elon Musk famously said that he wanted to die on Mars, but not on impact. My hope is that he will be looking back, from the safety of his leafy habitat, at a shining, biodiverse, self-sustaining blue-green planet with 10 billion Homo sapiens living longer and better, readying themselves, some of them, for space travel. I hope that by the time Elon Musk goes to live on Mars, having wilderness areas on Earth is more important than having libraries, museums and national archives. Having wilderness represents our ability to leverage the option value of the infinite power of the natural world, billions of years of iteration towards a perfect balance.

To me, preserving wilderness does far more than simply protecting the ecosystems that clean the water we drink and create the air we breath. To me, preserving wilderness protects our basic human right to be wild, our basic human right to explore. This year, we are signing a long-term agreement with the Angolan government to start the process of establishing one of the largest wildlife reserve in Africa. This new protected area will preserve the sources of the Okavango River in perpetuity, and cover an area larger than England, larger than the State of Wisconsin. This needs to happen around the world. We need to create space for elephants, for tigers, for pandas, for mountain gorillas, and for all life. We are the living generations that need to do this or face the uncertainty of relying on technology to manage the life support systems on this planet. Realising the importance of wilderness to our human condition and our future survival as a species among many is a great starting point.

Please go to https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/okavango/ for more information on our work.

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