Nature illuminated as never seen before

Photo: Creative Commons Sam Beebe, 2009.

If Nature could draw its own map, what would it look like? One answer would be a map of the land area painted in 846 colors—representing a world not divided by political boundaries, but by ecoregions.

What are ecoregions? Simply put, ecoregions are ecosystems of regional extent. The base map of ecoregions shown in a groundbreaking new map underpins a grand solution that would give future generations a healthy, vibrant planet teeming with the diversity of life that we have inherited over the past 3.8 billion years.

That goal is to conserve half the Earth in an interconnected way that allows all life to flourish. If we do so, we will save our living biosphere with its 10 million species that we share together on this beautiful planet. This will ensure a future in which our species, Homo sapiens, and all other plants and animals can thrive.

North America: Known in scientific terms as the Nearctic realm, this contains 115 distinct ecoregions covering 2.1 billion hectares. 11% of this realm is currently protected with 11 ecoregions containing greater than 50% protection. 30 ecoregions are imperiled.

With the aspirational goal set before us, we used this new map of the world’s 846 ecoregions, and determined how much habitat remains and how much is protected in each of these places. The results show that the aspirational goal of protecting half by 2050 is, indeed, feasible.

98 ecoregions already have at least half of their land areas protected for the conservation of nature and could even increase the area of protection. Another 313 ecoregions fall short of half-protected but have sufficient unaltered habitat remaining to protect the target—we could reach this milestone by empowering indigenous groups, local communities, and landowners to conserve their land.

This is especially important for the world’s tropical rainforests. Covering only 14% of the Earth’s surface, this biome supports more than half of life on Earth and 140 of the rainforest ecoregions are either already half-protected or have sufficient habitat to do so. Imagine a world where tigers, elephants, apes, down to the smallest tropical hummingbirds and orchids are protected forever. And indigenous people are given the rights to manage their lands as they have for centuries before the industrial revolution. The goal is within our grasp if we act now.


South America: Known in scientific terms as the Neotropical realm, this contains 179 distinct ecoregions covering 1.9 billion hectares. 25% of this realm is currently protected with 36 ecoregions containing greater than 50% protection. 29 ecoregions are imperiled.

An ecoregion protection approach—paired with planning processes that seek to mesh development needs with those of nature—is essential to ensuring we are setting aside the right 50%. Most species on Earth can be saved if we leave room for nature in the most sensitive places. This will require not just creating new protected areas but finding ways to better support existing reserves. We will need technological solutions, political solutions, and the good will of all nations to act on behalf of Nature so that she can continue to thrive on our behalf.

With the knowledge in hand about what needs to be done and a powerful goal to protect half of nature—codified by indigenous leaders, leading scientists, and NGOs—we can now take bold action. If Nature could draw a map, she would ask for us to start with the ecoregions that form the “architecture” of life in the natural world. Then, she would ask for at least half to be protected, to ensure this half was interconnected, and to restore, where possible the most sensitive and damaged areas.

To follow Nature’s map and guidance will ensure a thriving planet for ourselves, future generations, and the tens of millions of species with whom we share this vibrant planet.

Eurasia (Europe, Russia and South and Central Asia): Known in scientific terms as the Palearctic realm, this contains 205 distinct ecoregions covering 5.2 billion hectares. 10% of this realm is currently protected with 7 ecoregions containing greater than 50% protection. 51 ecoregions are imperiled.
Africa & the Middle East: Known in scientific terms as the Afrotropical realm, this contains 116 distinct ecoregions covering 2.2 billion hectares. 16% of this realm is currently protected with 12 ecoregions containing greater than 50% protection. 48 ecoregions are imperiled.
Oceania (Australasia, SE Asia and the Pacific Islands): Known in scientific terms as the Palearctic realm, this contains 213 distinct ecoregions covering 1.8 billion hectares. 13% of this realm is currently protected with 14 ecoregions containing greater than 50% protection. 49 ecoregions are imperiled.
Last updated April 27, 2017