Protected areas are a key strategy for conserving natural ecosystems and preventing further loss of biodiversity. But according to a new analysis published on 28 October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the protected status is not effectively protecting these regions from human pressures (1).
At present, one-sixth of the Earth’s land falls under the protected status. Meeting the current target of protecting 17 per cent of terrestrial land — expected to increase to 30 per cent at a meeting next year in China — is not realistic unless supported by essential resources, the authors explain.
The incredible biodiversity of these protected regions plays a crucial role in supporting the most threatened of species. Nonetheless, the authors argue that expanding protected areas is simply not enough. Ensuring existing protected regions are effective should be a global priority. And this will require putting new measures in place to guard against further human encroachment.
The researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Conservation Research Institute collaborated with members of the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in the UK, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and the Centre for International Forestry Research in Indonesia to perform the largest study on the effectiveness of protected areas to date.
To estimate levels of human pressures, the team analysed data from 152 countries — a total of 12,315 protected areas — including satellite evidence of ‘night lights’ and agriculture as well as census and crop yield data.
Across the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, protection has proven effective at slowing human encroachment, on average, compared with unprotected habitats. But they discovered that the majority of protected lands have experienced increased human pressure since 1995. Particularly, in remote regions of the tropics.
Previous studies only examined protected forests and suggested that protected areas can indeed help mitigate deforestation. However, the new analysis shows that whereas the protected designation does safeguard areas like the Amazon from deforestation, protected regions in South America outside the Amazon saw an increase in agricultural encroachment of around 10 per cent.
And the protected status is even less effective in other habitats like grasslands and savannahs. In East and Central Africa, increases in human encroachment were particularly evident. For examples, the rate of increase in cropland inside protected areas has almost doubled since 1995; Agriculture is putting pressure on African mangroves, with a 13 per cent increase inside protected areas; and agriculture has increased by 8 per cent in grassland habitats of South East Asia.
In short, not all protected areas are effectively protected.
“Our study suggests that protected areas in more remote and wild parts of the tropics have experienced alarming increases in human pressure since 1995,” said Dr Jonas Geldmann, lead author and a conservation researcher at the University of Cambridge. Adding, “These places house a disproportionately high amount of the Earth’s biodiversity, and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining our most threatened species.”
The main reason for increases in human pressures may be down to a severe lack of funding. “Rapidly establishing new protected areas to meet global targets without providing sufficient investment and resourcing on the ground is unlikely to halt the unfolding extinction crisis,” Geldmann says.
Moreover, the researchers found a connection between increased human pressure on protected areas and nations with fewer roads and a lower rank on the Human Development Index. Higher levels of corruption could be another factor.
Finally, the protected status often weakens the tenure rights of indigenous and local communities, which could mean these areas are at actually at a higher risk of being exploited by ‘outsiders’ since local people do not have the authority to ‘deter’ opportunistic outsiders and companies; Thereby, spurring encroachment rather than preventing it. Previous studies suggest that enlisting the help of indigenous people to manage reserves can reduce habitat loss.
(1) Geldmann, J. et al. A global-level assessment of the effectiveness of protected areas at resisting anthropogenic pressures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019), DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1908221116