Issue of the Week: Are Protected Lands Protecting Biodiversity?

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While national parks seem like a relatively new idea to modern society, civilizations have designated parcels of land for hunting, gathering and preservation of resources since the dawn of mankind. As human civilizations changed and progressed, so have the processes that establish and manage protected areas.

However, a recent study titled Targeting Global Protected Area Expansion for Imperiled Biodiversity questions if protected areas are able to adequately protect species and overall biodiversity of land.

“Our study shows that existing protected areas are performing very poorly in terms of protecting the world’s most threatened species,” Dr. Oscar Venter, lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “This is concerning, as protected areas are meant to act as strongholds for vulnerable species, which clearly they are not.”

The study’s contributors state that protected lands are often chosen because the land is inexpensive to protect. They believe that public land expansion targets land that is cheap and creates minimal impacts to human development rather than focusing on where the threatened species actually live.

“If we cover 30 percent of the globe in parks using a business-as-usual approach, many threatened species will miss out. But when imperiled species are targeted, we found that many cost-efficient options emerged for including them within new parks,” Venter said

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Conversely, other conservationist believe that protected areas remain the cornerstone of conservation and that it is not where they are established but rather how they are managed that dictates how effective they will be in protecting the biodiversity of an area.

A World Wildlife Fund study, How Effective Are Protected Areas, described protected areas as “a complex and continually evolving task that requires skill, dedication and resources.” They state that despite weaknesses identified, the majority of responses reveal that biodiversity conditions in the protected forests surveyed were perceived as good, even in areas where trees are farmed for paper. This information suggests that successful protected areas can exist anywhere in the world as long as they are appropriately staffed and have the capacity and the means to establish monitoring and evaluation programs for critical ecosystems.

Furthermore, other studies such as Conserving Large Carnivores: Dollars and Fence by Craig Packer and a population study and distribution analysis from Jason Riggio highlight the success protected areas have in protecting biodiversity. Packer suggests using fences to designate certain areas for development. Though the use of fences is controversial among biologists and SCI Foundation does not advocate for them, Packer believes it’s the best way to separate developed areas from protected land used as nature reserves, which could give species the opportunity to thrive. While investigating lion populations and their distributions, Riggio found that 11 lion populations are stable or increasing in protected areas, or strongholds.

SCI Foundation funds and directs projects around the world to ensure that biodiversity and sustainable use are considered in wildlife management. With governments working to expand protected land from 13 percent to 17 percent of the world’s land surface by 2020, it is imperative that the strongest practices involving the development of protected land are established and utilized worldwide. These areas have the ability to not only conserve wildlife but also produce a range of socio-economic benefits. Whether it is thought to be location, management or other inhibiting factors, evaluating our protected areas and ensuring that they are providing suitable protection is of critical importance.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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