Wilderness: A Documentary Illusion

The footage that reached our television screens last Sunday was no doubt familiar to us all: a sea of densely forested hills expanding for miles in every direction as the camera broke through the clouds. The trees were seemingly endless. Other episodes of this series of Planet Earth will show similarly dramatic landscapes: perhaps a savannah dotted with wildebeest; or a vast expanse of desert; or a towering mountain range. One thing is certain: they will all be landscapes without humans.

Wildlife documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth (and most recently Planet Earth II), are beloved by the public and conservationists alike. They offer us inspiration, an insight into the lives of the world’s most charismatic creatures – and an illusion of a global wilderness.

Shots of undisturbed rainforest are common in wildlife films (Source: pexels.com)

The emphasis within wildlife documentaries on wild landscapes without people can be understood as a manifestation of the wilderness ideals embedded in the conservation and nature movements. The concept of wilderness as we understand it today grew up in America in the late 19th century as a product of Romanticism. It was rapidly exported worldwide, particularly to colonial governments in Africa, who saw the vast sparsely populated savannahs of eastern Africa as pristine regions, unchanged by humans. It was these areas, with their abundance of game, that were designated as some of the earliest protected areas and which formed the blueprint for conservation as it developed.

Wilderness ideas have remained central – and often pervasive – in the conservation movement. To this day, protected areas in many regions of the world are created with wilderness ideals in mind: activities within them, such as resource extraction and tourism, are strictly limited, often to the detriment of local people. ‘Fortress conservation’, as it is known, may involve the removal of indigenous groups from the landscape in order to create these wildernesses, as has been seen in Tanzania and India. It is this style of conservation that we see reflected in wildlife films. Nature is presented as something exotic, distant and entirely non-overlapping with the human world.


The Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, where the Maasai people were threatened with eviction (Source: wikimedia.org)


But why does this (largely Western) cultural perception of wilderness matter, and what are the implications of a focus on wilderness ideals, both for conservationists and the general public?

Firstly, we need to recognise that, despite the emphasis on wild nature in documentaries, wilderness landscapes form a minority of land area globally: only around 23% of habitable land area remains as wilderness. In contrast, around 50% of habitable land area is now agricultural land. This means that across the majority of landscapes globally, humans are interacting with and influencing ecosystems. If we are to get a handle  on conservation and the natural world we need to be considering these non-wilderness landscapes too.

This is especially important when we consider the fact that even landscapes that are human-dominated may still have high biodiversity value. As an example, many habitat types across Europe developed as a result of centuries of agricultural production and extensive human-nature interactions. Importantly, this does not lessen their value for biodiversity: moorlands, heathlands, calcareous grasslands, cork oak forests and coppiced woodlands so familiar across Western Europe are actually reliant on traditional human management to maintain their unique structure and high biodiversity. However, if wildlife documentaries only feature landscapes devoid of humans as containing valuable or charismatic biodiversity, we may forget to connect with this biodiversity in landscapes closer to home.

Cork oak forest in the Mediterranean: a human-managed, biodiverse ecosystem (Source: wikimedia.org)


Furthermore, even landscapes that are presented as pristine and untouched may well have a history of human interaction, and viewing them as wilderness only tells half the story. The Amazon rainforest is widely regarded as an ‘unexplored wilderness’, but prior to European colonisation, areas of the Amazon basin were densely settled. Paleo-ecological studies have shown that across these inhabited areas forests were impacted through burning and felling, creating areas of open forest, rather than the closed canopy forest we see today.

Secondly, consideration of humans as separate to nature erases the ways in which humans need nature. The concept of ecosystem services has become an increasingly popular framework for understanding the benefits that ecosystems provide. These benefits occur across a whole range of scales from large scale carbon sequestration by tropical forests all the way down to local opportunities for recreation in nature parks. Crucially, humans can generally only profit from the full range of services when they live in close proximity to an ecosystem: for example, the flood regulation provided by wetlands or mangroves is only appreciated when there is human infrastructure in the area benefiting from protection.

Wetlands provide protection against flooding by absorbing and holding large quantities of water (Source: flickr.com)


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, human influence on ecosystems is growing. This pressure will only increase through the 21st century as the global population nears an estimated 10 billion. With the growing impact of climate change, even the most isolated areas of wilderness will soon be unable to escape human impacts. It is imperative that we recognise this fact and move to work with it, rather than against it. Increased impacts need not sound the death knell for biodiversity. Instead, with targeted research on the impacts of human activities it will be possible to properly manage ecosystems under environmental change. For example, recent research on the impacts of logging in tropical forests suggests that carefully managed low-intensity logging can have minimal impacts on species richness. If we only value pristine wilderness systems, we risk devaluing human-altered systems, and overlooking the myriad ways in which nature persists in these landscapes.

Though wildlife documentaries are valuable, for education, enjoyment and for inspiration to value the natural world, by omitting humans from the stories they tell they miss the nuance inherent in our relationship with the environment. The way we interact with wild places is complex and evolving, and only by considering these interactions can we hope to fully understand and conserve nature in all its forms.

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