Leading primatologist Serge Wich has expressed his shock after contributing to research which suggests only 3% of the world’s land remains ecologically intact with healthy populations of all its original animals.
These fragments of wilderness undamaged by human activities are mainly in parts of the Amazon and Congo tropical forests, east Siberian and northern Canadian forests and tundra, and the Sahara.
Professor Wich, from LJMU’s School of Biological and Environmental Sciences , said: “It was shocking to find out that so little faunally intact areas remain around the world and that in addition so little of it is within protected areas.
“There is thus a clear need to protect these areas and start restoring areas by reintroducing species so that we get more areas that have an intact fauna."
The researchers suggest reintroducing a small number of important species to some damaged areas, such as elephants or wolves – a move that could restore up to 20% of the world’s land to ecological intactness.
Previous analyses have identified wilderness areas based largely on satellite images and estimated that 20-40% of the Earth’s surface is little affected by humans. However, the scientists behind the new study, featured strongly in the Guardian, argue that forests, savannah and tundra can appear intact from above but that, on the ground, vital species are missing. Elephants, for example, spread seeds and create important clearings in forests, while wolves can control populations of deer and elk.
The new assessment combines maps of human damage to habitat with maps showing where animals have disappeared from their original ranges or are too few in number to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Professor Wich, who contributed data on orangutan survival recently published separate research indicating that the world's most threatened ape, the Tapanuli orangutan, is in greater danger of becoming extinct than previously thought due to deforestation.
The research showing just 3% of habitat in tact was published in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, and led by Dr Andrew Plumptre at Cambridge. Most of the data was for mammals, but it also included some birds, fish, plants, reptiles and amphibians.