Protected Areas

Category Ib: Wilderness Area

Protected areas that are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.


Primary objective

To protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas that are undisturbed by significant human activity, free of modern infrastructure and where natural forces and processes predominate, so that current and future generations have the opportunity to experience such areas.

Other objectives 

  •  To provide for public access at levels and of a type which will maintain the wilderness qualities of the area for present and future generations;
  • To enable indigenous communities to maintain their traditional wilderness-based lifestyle and customs, living at low density and using the available resources in ways compatible with the conservation objectives;

  • To protect the relevant cultural and spiritual values and non-material benefits to indigenous or non-indigenous populations, such as solitude, respect for sacred sites, respect for ancestors etc.;

  • To allow for low-impact minimally invasive educational and scientific research activities, when such activities cannot be conducted outside the wilderness area.

Distinguishing features

The area should generally:

  • Be free of modern infrastructure, development and industrial extractive activity, including but not limited to roads, pipelines, power lines, cellphone towers, oil and gas platforms, offshore liquefied natural gas terminals, other permanent structures, mining, hydropower development, oil and gas extraction, agriculture including intensive livestock grazing, commercial fishing, low-flying aircraft etc., preferably with highly restricted or no motorized access.

  • Be characterized by a high degree of intactness: containing a large percentage of the original extent of the ecosystem, complete or near-complete native faunal and floral assemblages, retaining intact predator-prey systems, and including large mammals.

  • Be of sufficient size to protect biodiversity; to maintain ecological processes and ecosystem services; to maintain ecological refugia; to buffer against the impacts of climate change; and to maintain evolutionary processes.

  • Offer outstanding opportunities for solitude, enjoyed once the area has been reached, by simple, quiet and non-intrusive means of travel (i.e., non-motorized or highly regulated motorized access where strictly necessary and consistent with the biological objectives listed above).

  • Be free of inappropriate or excessive human use or presence, which will decrease wilderness values and ultimately prevent an area from meeting the biological and cultural criteria listed above. However, human presence should not be the determining factor in deciding whether to establish a category Ib area. The key objectives are biological intactness and the absence of permanent infrastructure, extractive industries, agriculture, motorized use, and other indicators of modern or lasting technology.

However, in addition they can include:

  • Somewhat disturbed areas that are capable of restoration to a wilderness state, and smaller areas that might be expanded or could play an important role in a larger wilderness protection strategy as part of a system of protected areas that includes wilderness, if the management objectives for those somewhat disturbed or smaller areas are otherwise consistent with the objectives set out above.

Where the biological integrity of a wilderness area is secure and the primary objective listed above is met, the management focus of the wilderness area may shift to other objectives such as protecting cultural values or recreation, but only so long as the primary objective continues to be secure.

Role in the landscape/seascape

In many ways wilderness areas play similar roles to category II national parks in protecting large, functioning ecosystems (or at least areas where many aspects of an ecosystem can flourish). Their particular roles include:

  • Protecting large mainly untouched areas where ecosystem processes, including evolution, can continue unhindered by human, including development or mass tourism;

  • Protecting compatible ecosystem services;

  • Protecting particular species and ecological communities that require relatively large areas of undisturbed habitat;

  • Providing a “pool” of such species to help populate sustainably-managed areas surrounding the protected area;

  • Providing space for a limited number of visitors to experience wilderness;

  • Providing opportunities for responses to climate change including biome shift.

What makes category Ib unique?

Category Ib differs from the other categories in the following ways:
Category Ia Category Ia protected areas are strictly protected areas, generally with only limited human visitation. They are often (but not always) relatively small, in contrast to Ib. There would usually not be human inhabitants in category Ia, but use by indigenous and local communities takes place in many Ib protected areas.
Category II Category Ib and II protected areas are often similar in size and in their aim to protect functioning ecosystems. But whereas II usually includes (or plans to include) use by visitors, including supporting infrastructure, in Ib visitor use is more limited and confined to those with the skills and equipment to survive unaided.
Category III Category III is aimed at protecting a specific natural feature, which is not the aim of category Ib. Category III protected areas are frequently quite small and, like category II, aimed at encouraging visitors sometimes in large numbers; Ib sites on the other hand are generally larger and discourage anything but specialist visitors.
Category IV Category IV protected areas are usually relatively small and certainly not complete functioning ecosystems, most will need regular management interventions to maintain their associated biodiversity: all these attributes are the reverse of conditions in Ib.
Category V Category V protected areas comprise cultural landscapes and seascapes, shaped by (usually long-term) human intervention and usually containing sizable settled human communities. Category Ib should be in as natural a state as possible and would only contain cultural landscapes if the intention were to restore these back to near-natural conditions.
Category VI Category VI is predicated on setting internal zoning and management regimes to support sustainable use; although wilderness areas sometimes include limited traditional use by indigenous people this is incidental to management aims rather than an intrinsic part of those aims.

Issues for consideration

Some wilderness areas include livestock grazing by nomadic peoples and distinctions may need to be made between intensive and non-intensive grazing; however this will pose challenges if people want to increase stocking density.

Serengeti National Park Wilderness Area


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