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Congo Basin Forests © WRI

High-Biodiversity Wilderness Areas (HBWA)

The large intact ecosystems of the world that hold significant levels of global biodiversity

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Source: Brooks, T. M., Mittermeier, R. A. , da Fonseca, G. A. B., Gerlach, J., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J. F., Mittermeier, C. G., Pilgrim, J. D. and Rodrigues, A. S. L. (2006) Global Biodiversity Conservation Priorities. Science 313 (5783), 58.


The IUCN Protected Areas Classification System defines wilderness as “ large areas of unmodified or slightly modified land and/or sea, retaining their natural character and influence, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition ”.1 The HBWA approach is an adopted priority setting template developed by Conservation International (CI) which refers to 5 of the 24 identified major tropical wilderness areas that hold globally significant levels of biodiversity.2 They are Amazonia, the Congo forests of Central Africa, New Guinea, the Miombo-Mopane woodlands of Southern Africa (including the Okavango Delta), and the North American desert complex of northern Mexico and the Southwestern part of United States of America. The intact portion of these areas covers 8,981,000 km2 (76% of their original extent), and 6.1% of the planet’s land area.3


Supported by

Conservation International (CI)


Year of creation



Global in extent. Five identified regional-scale areas.2



Wilderness areas are classified as areas ≥10,000 km2 that are based on the world’s terrestrial ecoregions, with a human population density outside urban areas of ≤5 people per km2 that retain at least 70% of their historical habitat extent (500 years ago). This analysis yielded 24 wilderness areas.2 HBWA are the top five wilderness areas based on endemic biodiversity (at least 0.5% of the world’s plants). Between them they hold 17% of the global total of vascular plants, and 8% of the global total of terrestrial vertebrates as endemics, whereas all 24 wilderness areas support only fractionally more – 18% and 10%, respectively.3



There is no specific management associated with HBWAs, although they are the focus of many international conservation efforts.


Business relevance:

Legal and compliance – Since HBWA is a priority setting approach, designation does not rely on any legal and compliance requirements. Most of them are too large to legally protect in their entirety and national government is not involved in their identification. They are, however, referred to in some environmental safeguard standards such as those of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative4 that require that procurement promotes the conservation of HBWAs.

Biodiversity – HBWA’s is an important prioritisation approach due to its exclusive criteria based on high irreplaceability of species within large intact wilderness areas. This is a regional-scale approach based on coarse scale ecoregions that therefore has limited use for site-scale assessment and decision making. More detailed assessments are often needed to locate the actual distribution of biodiversity within these areas.

Socio-cultural – These areas are not associated with any socio-cultural values due to a lack of human presence and intervention within these areas.



  • The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for business provides a visualisation and GIS download tool for protected areas and prioritisation approaches, including High-Biodiversity Wilderness Areas.


  1. Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008) Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  2. Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., Gil, P.R., Pilgrim, J.D., Konstant, W.R., da Fonseca, G.A.B., & Brooks, T.M. (2002) Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places. CEMEX, Mexico
  3. Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., Brooks, T.M., Pilgrim, J.D., Konstant, W.R., da Fonseca, G.A.B., & Kormos, C. (2003) Wilderness and Biodiversity Conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(18):10309-13
  4. SFI (2010) Sustainable Forestry Initiative 2010-2014 Standard. Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.


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