08/09/2016 11:16 AM AEST | Updated 09/09/2016 3:02 PM AEST

Why We Need Parts Of Our World To Stay In The Wilderness

Wilderness areas are declining at a catastrophic rate, and we should care.

Once the entire globe was a wilderness area.
Getty Images/Universal Images Group
Once the entire globe was a wilderness area.

If a devastating decline in the world's wilderness areas continues at its current rate, there will be none left within 50 years.

James Cook University research is showing for the first time that one tenth of global wilderness areas have disappeared in the past 20 years.

William Laurance
An elephant strolls through the wilds of northern Tanzania.

That's 3.3 million square kilometres of wilderness (or two Alaskas) that no longer exist, degraded by human activity like mining, logging and urban sprawl.

This map shows our wilderness ares in green, and the parts that have been lost in red as published in the study in journal Cell.

Cell Press
One tenth of the world's wilderness areas are no longer considered 'wilderness' -- shown in red.

Research leader James Watson told The Huffington Post Australia this was a global concern because wilderness ares underpinned key planetary functions.

"The conservation effort is sometimes split into climate change and threatened species but wilderness areas are vital to them both," Watson told HuffPost Australia.

"Everyone knows these intact landscapes are an important stronghold for biodiversity and home to some of the most imperilled species.

William Laurance
An altiplano wilderness high in the Colombian Andes.

"They can also influence local climate regimes and are important for sequestering carbon.

"It's also home to some of the most impoverished people in the world and the key thing we've shown is these areas under dramatic threat."

William Laurance
A dawn mist rises over a rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia.

Regions that lost the most wilderness were the Amazon, where 30 percent is now gone and central Africa which lost 14 percent, however Australia was not without its shame, having lost wilderness areas in the Nortehrn Territory and Western Australia.

"We have the largest intact savannas in world and then there's the Great Western Woodlands.

"They're two major ecosystems of global importance -- you can see them from space -- but unfortunately mining in the west has eroded land and there are plans for development in the north.

"We've lost 6.5 million hecatares since 1993 in Australia."

What's a wilderness area?

University of South Australia social scientist Delene Weber told The Huffington Post Australia the definition was different the world over but the sentiment remained the same.

"Simply put, it's essentially a place with a lot of wilderness," Weber told HuffPost Australia.

"In the U.S. they use the phrase "untrammelled by man" but here in Australia that's not the case because all of our lands have had Indigenous people living on them."

Slow Images
A wilderness area retains its original character.

Instead, Australia follows guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources that states it's a protected area managed mainly for wilderness preservation that is largely unmodified by humans.

For the purpose of this study, "wilderness is defined as biologically and ecologically largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance".

These areas include places where people live, These areas do not exclude people Rather, they have lower levels of impact that result in significant biophysical disturbance like large-scale land conversion, industrial activity, or infrastructure.

Watson and his team are calling for a global effort to protect wilderness areas before it's too late.

"We need to re-frame wilderness loss in exact same way we see species extinction -- when the last individual of a species dies, it's a profoundly sad thing.

"In wilderness areas, once it's been logged, or had a road put in or major infrastructure it can never be restored.

Kazunori Nagashima
Care about the wilderness in the same way you care about the animals that inhabit it.

You can't offset it. It's gone forever.

We need to see these globally significant blocks of wilderness as reference points for all of nature. That's what nature used to be like before humans trashed the earth.

"Now we have an obligation to our children to protect them."