For the world’s poor who live outside the borders of cities and towns, help is often scarce. A new WCS-led study identifies some 16 million impoverished people who make their homes in remote corners of the globe, out of reach of major development assistance programs. The study, published in the July online edition of the journal Oryx, calls these communities “orphans” of aid, but finds new hope in a potential alliance between conservation groups and development agencies.

According to the researchers from WCS and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, conservation organizations seeking to preserve the world’s last wild places are well positioned to help the rural poor living there.

“Impoverishment of both nature and people can serve as a rallying cry for a new socially responsible, long-term approach to conservation of the world’s wildlife and wild places,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Kent Redford, WCS vice president and director of the WCS Institute.

Conservation organizations are working to establish sustainable landscapes around national parks with high levels of biodiversity and to incorporate parks with agriculture, forestry, fishing, and grazing areas that benefit both wildlife and people. A WCS-supported project in Brazil’s Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve has developed markets for sustainably harvested fish and timber products as a way to reduce illegal poaching of wildlife by the local communities. The program, run by the Sociedad Civil Mamirauá, has been wildly successful and has resulted in a higher standard of living and an increase in fish and wildlife populations in the region.

The study used infant mortality numbers—which often correlate with income, education, and health—as a proxy for poverty. The authors overlaid this data with the WCS Human Footprint map, which shows degrees of human influence on the planet. Influence is defined by four main factors: population density, land-use and settlement patterns, power infrastructure (e.g. access to electricity), and access to roads, rivers, and coastlines.

The results revealed that one-quarter percent of the world’s poor, or 16 million people, live in areas defined by the Human Footprint map as either “somewhat wild” or “extremely wild.” By contrast, nearly 80 percent of the world’s poor, 1.35 billion people, live in or near urban areas defined as “very transformed” or “extremely transformed.” The greatest number, 661 million, inhabit tropical and sub-tropical regions. The study found that the wild areas Central and East Africa have the biggest populations of poor, rural residents.