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Is anywhere really free from human influence? Or are there some remote locations – flourishing with rich biodiversity – that we can still call “Eden”?
Our impact on the planet is so great that scientists say it marks a new stage on the geological timeline.1 Human interference, such as poaching and illegal logging, cause irrevocable damage to our natural world. But, some of our wondrous lands are more protected than others. Perhaps in part, due to their isolated nature.
Journey to some of the world's most treasured lands with brand new series Eden: Untamed Planet. Find out more details and where to watch in your region here .
If talk of Eden conjures up images of green and vibrant landscapes, then consider Borneo. It’s the third largest island in the world,2 with one of the oldest – and most diverse – rainforests.3 60,000 species of plants and animals live here4 – 6,000 of which are endemic (found nowhere else on Earth).5
It’s also home to the world’s tallest tropical tree, which measures 100.8 m (330.7 feet) tall, with an estimated weight of 81,500 kilograms. That’s taller than a football pitch is long and heavier than the maximum take-off weight of a Boeing 737-800!6
Only a third of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing7 and that includes the Luangwa River, one of the most wildlife-dense rivers in Africa. It has high concentrations of hippos and crocodiles, while the valley it flows through is home to lions, leopards, elephants and buffalo – as well as two endemic sub-species: Thornicroft’s Giraffe and Cookson’s Wildebeest.8
The Luangwa Valley remains relatively untouched by humans and that’s largely down to the river. For half the year the land is impassable by road due to floods: the knee-deep stream becomes a raging torrent, spilling across surrounding plains and into the neighbouring woodlands.9
The Namib desert in Africa is believed to be the world’s oldest desert, and is at least 55 million years old. Annual rainfall here can be as low as 2mm and temperatures vary wildly, with below 0°C and above 50°C recorded in the same location.10
Even an unforgiving place like this is an Eden – and that’s down to thick fog. It creates dew, which allows life such as the welwitschia to survive. It’s a plant thought to date back to the Jurassic period and although it can live to be 1,500 years old, it only ever grows two leaves, each of which can be up to 4m long. And although the dry riverbeds suggest an arid landscape, water flows underground, creating “oases” on the surface. It allows the growth of trees such as the Camelthorn, whose roots can tap water sources up to 50m below.11
There’s a surprising array of animal-life too: rhinos, lions, and the black-faced impala to name but three.13 Many animals have adapted well to this climate, such as elephants that go four days without water or using their tusks to dig waterholes, and the gemsbok (a large antelope) that manages to keep a cool head – literally – through rapid breathing. This pumps blood through vessels around its nose that cool it down, keeping its brain suitably chilled even if its body temperature is over 40°C.
In the far-flung tropical Pacific, around 1,000 km from anywhere, lie the Galápagos Islands where Charles Darwin began to devise his theory of evolution.14 They are one of the most important areas of biodiversity and have the highest levels of endemism on Earth: 80% of the land birds, 97% of the reptiles and land mammals, and more than 30% of the plants can only be found here. 20% of the marine species are endemic too, including the only penguin species in the Northern Hemisphere – the Galapagos penguin – and, of course, the giant Galapagos tortoise.15
Patagonia stretches from the high Andes to Antarctica and is known as ‘the end of the world’. Its landscapes include forests, islands, fjords, and icefields16 and many of the animals are as big as the landscape is vast. This includes the Andean condor – which has the largest wingspan in the world – and the Puma, the fourth largest cat species. It’s 2.7m (9 feet) from nose to tail, whilst the much cuter-looking Geoffroy’s Cat is a much smaller endangered feline, about the size of a domestic cat. The seas burst with life too, including four different species of penguin and Commerson’s Dolphin – often called the “skunk” or “panda” dolphin, due to their black and white markings. They’re very gregarious creatures and are often seen playing in the water beside tourist and fishing boats.17
In Southeast Alaska, there’s an ice-bound Eden – an area deemed so important that Theodore Roosevelt made 17 million acres of it a protected area at the beginning of the 20th Century.18 This area is known as the ‘Tongass National Forest’, and is the nation’s largest.19
Temperate rainforests have the greatest amount of living plant life per area of any forest in the world – and here, big is beautiful. Giant cedar, hemlock, and spruce trees grow to be 1,000 years old, over 60m (200 feet) tall and up to 3.6m (12 feet) in diameter.20
The great abundance of nature here is partly down to the migration of salmon. Pacific salmon returning home carry with them stores of nutrients accumulated from years in the open ocean. When they die – either in the water or in the forest after being dragged there by predators – these nutrients are then released into the environment as fishy fertiliser.
Additionally, the forest plays an essential role in the fight against climate change. It’s a natural carbon sink, estimated to hold nearly 50% of all the carbon stored in America’s national forests.21
Whilst the remoteness of these six Edens does help protect them, they’re not completely free from the perils of the modern world.
Logging has threatened Alaska and in Borneo, 29,000 km² (an area roughly the size of Belgium) was lost to timber between 1985 and 2001.22 It’s also estimated that one-fifth of rainforests have been cleared to make way for oil palm plantations,23 but whilst they generate huge profits they don’t support the existing wildlife. “In the last two decades alone 80% of orangutan habitat has been felled,” says Eden’s director & producer, Ingrid Kvale. “Thousands of these apes are marooned in small pockets of rainforest.” Borneo is also losing predators such as mongoose, otters, civets and sun bears.
In the Luangwa Valley, the threat comes from the lack of laws protecting the river. “Any man-made alterations that are made to it, whether it’s damming to modern development and agriculture, would have an impact on everything,” says Eden producer & director, Valeria Fabbri-Kennedy. “All the amazing animals that we see and the incredible behaviours that we witnessed would be affected.”
In the Namib desert, off-road driving damages lichen fields, causing long-lasting effects because lichen grow extremely slowly.24 And as Eden series producer, Steve Cole, says, human use of ground water is a problem, too: “It brings animals like elephants in very close contact with people. It’s potential conflict with humans that is the biggest threat.”
Many native animals of Patagonia have been displaced due to habitat loss, mostly due to sheep and cattle farming.25 “Almost 90% of the steppe (scrubland) has been degraded by farming,” says Eden producer & director, Justine Allen. It’s reduced the numbers of the guanaco, which in turn means pumas are forced to find other sources of food. “This has led to a heightened human-predator conflict between pumas and ranchers.”
Even the remote Galápagos Islands are not free from problems caused by what humans have brought with them. Dogs have been a threat to tortoise eggs, native iguana species, and penguins – and a new wasp species has caused a decline in caterpillar larvae, a food source for finches.26 But sometimes nature itself is the problem. In May 2021, Darwin’s Arch, a famous rock formation off the Galapagos Islands, collapsed due to natural erosion.
However, efforts are being made to protect these precious Edens.
Up to 90% of deforestation in Borneo is carried out illegally, so charities work with villages in Borneo to offer them alternative forms of sustainable livelihoods.27 Other initiatives include restoring degraded rainforest28 and there’s action we can take too: only purchase products made from certified sustainable palm oil, or avoid it altogether.29
In Zambia, plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the all-important Luangwa River were abandoned in favour of solar and wind power. This helped preserve the biodiversity of the area and there’s now a campaign to get the river legally protected to safeguard it from future threats.30
To protect the Namib, a range of national parks have been established – such as the 49,768 sq. km (19,215 sq. mile) Namib-Naukluft National Park – and a stretch of the coastal desert was designated a World Heritage site (The Namib Sand Sea) in 2012.31Additionally, there’s a WWF-supported conservancy movement that involves local communities, giving them responsibility and right of ownership to the natural resources and wildlife. Any profit made from the area is then invested back into the community.32
Conservation projects are underway on the Galápagos Islands, too. From returning tortoises to Pinta Island after a 40-year-long absence to removing invasive goats that destroyed native vegetation, much is being done to restore these islands.
Finally, in Alaska the Tongass lost its protected status in October 2020, putting 9.3 million acres at risk of industrial development. That decision was reversed in July 2021, when a new Sustainability Strategy was announced in collaboration with diverse local groups, to help the economy and conserve natural resources.33
All this goes to show that whilst our planet may now be home to nearly 8 billion people, places remain that can indeed be thought of as Eden. “Protected by their remoteness, or their extreme environments,” says Eden’s Executive Producer, Mark Brownlow, “they’re still home to a spell binding variety of life.
“These last Edens are precious, to be celebrated, to be cherished, but above all to be preserved.”
Featured image by © Cede Prudente
1. Our Impact on The Planet, 2. Borneo The World’s Third Largest Island and Palm Plantation Profits, 3. The Most Diverse Rainforest, 4. Borneo's Abundant Species, 5. Borneo's Endemic Species, 6. The World’s Tallest Tropical Tree, 7. The World’s Free-Flowing Rivers, 8. Luangwa Valley Wildlife, 9. Luangwa Valley Flooding, 10. Namib Desert Facts, 11. Namib Desert Animal adaptations and plant life, 12. Namib Desert Animal life, 13. Charles Darwin, 14. Galápagos Biodiversity, 15. Patagonian Landscapes, 16. Patagonian Species, 17. Theodore Roosevelt’s Protection, 18. Temperate Rainforest Plant Life and Salmon Fertiliser, 19. Tongass National Forest, 20. The Fight Against Climate Change, 21. Borneo's Lost Forests, 22. Threats to Borneo's Forests and Wildlife, 23. Namib Desert Off-Road Driving Impact, 24. Patagonian Animal Displacement, 25. Galápagos Degradation and Restoration, 26. An Alternative to Logging, 27. Restoring the Rainforest, 28. Orangutans and the Problem with Palm Oil, 29. Luangwa River Saved...For Now, 30. Protecting the Namib Desert, 32. Namib Local Community Ownership, 33. Alaskan Rainforest Renewed Protection