Tag Archives: protected area

We need to protect 50% of the planet — but even that’s not enough

Image credits: Lingchor.

Protected areas are advocated for by scientists and conservationists alike because of their clear environmental benefits. Due to the constant expansion of our species, environments and ecosystems are under more and more pressure, and having safe havens like these protected areas is essential for the wellbeing of our planet.

Primarily, protected areas protect biodiversity and ecosystems while also often functioning as natural climate solutions. Protected areas also come with a host of benefits for goals beyond environmentalism. These include social and financial benefits for residents within protected areas and safeguarding against the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. Simply put, protected areas are not just good for the planet — they’re good for us as well.

Currently, around 15% of Earth’s land surface (and around 7% of Earth’s ocean surface) is protected. There is therefore a long way to go before we reach the 50% protection goal.

However, in urging our governments to reach this 50% target, some scientists have warned us there is a risk that we can get so caught up in the quantity of protected land and seas that we don’t also consider how effective those protected areas are in the first place. But before we talk about the quality of protected areas, let’s talk a bit about quantity.

Where does this 50% figure come from anyway?

Prominent voices that are calling for half the Earth to be protected include the aptly named Half-Earth Project based on the book written by E. O. Wilson, as well as Nature Needs Half, an international organization that advocates for half of the planet to be protected by 2030. Their choice of 50% of the Earth, however, is not an arbitrary one, but one that is supported by science.

The Global Safety Net is a tool developed by a team of scientists that combines a number of different data layers and spatial information to estimate how much of Earth’s terrestrial environment needs to be protected to attain three specific goals. Those goals were 1) biodiversity conservation, 2) enhancing carbon storage, and 3) connecting natural habitats through wildlife and climate corridors.

The researchers found that using this framework, a total of 50.4% of terrestrial land should be conserved to “reverse further biodiversity loss, prevent CO2 emissions from land conversion, and enhance natural carbon removal”. Interestingly, these results concur with prior calls to protect half the planet.

This data also found that, globally, there is significant overlap between the land that needs to be protected for conservation and Indigenous lands. The authors of the paper write that by enforcing and protecting Indigenous land rights, we can combine biodiversity and climate goals with social justice and human rights. They emphasize that “with regard to indigenous peoples, the Global Safety Net reaffirms their role as essential guardians of nature”.

Biodiversity inside and outside protected areas
From The Guardian

Why it can be detrimental to only look at the numbers

Scientists are absolutely right in saying we should aim to protect half the planet. But there’s more to it than that. An equally important consideration is how effective those protected areas are at achieving their stated goals.

Worryingly, some scientists estimate the true quantity of protected land is much lower than the official 15% when effectiveness is considered. One paper found that “after adjusting for effectiveness, only 6.5%—rather than 15.7%—of the world’s forests are protected”. Importantly, the authors caution their readers against assuming that protected areas will completely eliminate deforestation within their boundaries. On average, they found that protected areas only reduced deforestation by 41%.

Another team of scientists analyzed over 50,000 protected areas in forests around the world and their impact from 2000-2015. A major finding from their paper was that a third of protected areas did not contribute to preventing forest loss. In addition, the areas that were effective only prevented around 30% of forest loss. The authors call for improving the effectiveness of existing protected areas in addition to expanding protected area networks.

Finally, a team of researchers recently authored a paper that analyzed protected areas established between 2000 and 2012 and found that significantly more amounts of deforestation could be avoided if existing protected areas were made more effective — this was despite the authors stating that protected areas already reduce deforestation by 72%. This is a notably higher effectiveness than is stated by those other papers – perhaps because the team analyzed only protected areas that were established relatively recently. Multiple papers have found that newer protected areas tend to be on average more effective than older ones.

So how can we make protected areas more effective then?

One of the most important considerations is that protected areas tend to prevent more deforestation in areas where deforestation is higher. However, it is still important to protect lands currently at low risk of degradation. In that way, future forest loss can be prevented before it becomes a significant problem.

Indirectly, other attributes of a country can predict how effective or ineffective the protected areas within that nation will be. Countries that have higher human development, higher GDP per capita, better governance, and lower agricultural activity tend to host more effective protected areas than countries with lower human development and GDP per capita, lower government effectiveness, and higher levels of agriculture.

Finally, as mentioned before, there is a huge amount of overlap between potential land for protection and Indigenous land. Engaging with, and granting property rights and legal recognition to, Indigenous people is a cost-effective way to protect forests while also addressing a human rights issue at the same time.  

What all of this data shows us is that the conversation surrounding environmental protection needs to be considered in a broader context, and take into consideration economic, political, and social justice concerns. And it is an issue that is far too complex for its success to be measured by a single number.

Protected areas are at risk from nearby invasive species, study shows

Invasive (or ‘alien’) species are living close to most almost all protected areas around the world, according to a new study. This poses important risks for local species, and further measures have to be taken to ensure the protected areas remain safe from invasive species.

Credit Flickr

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science found at least one established population of a non-native species lives within 10 km of the boundaries of 89% of protected areas.

According to the same study, more than 95% of these protected areas environmentally are suitable for the establishment of the invasive species.

“One of the most harmful ways that people are impacting the natural environment is through the introduction of ‘aliens’ – species that do not occur naturally in an area, but have been taken there by human activities,” said in a statement co-author Tim Blackburn. “These species may kill or compete with native species, or destroy habitats.”

Global biodiversity loss is caused by many factors, with alien species being one of the main problems, Blackburn said. It is becoming increasingly common to find invasive species established in new locations — including protected areas, which are highly important for biodiversity conservation and cover 15% of Earth’s surface. A species is considered invasive if is not native to a specific location, and that has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment

Backburn and his team looked at 894 terrestrial animal species, ranging from mammals to reptiles, that are known to have established invasive populations somewhere in the world. They evaluated whether the species could be found near to 200,000 protected areas around the world, such as national parks.

Less than 10% of the protected areas are currently home to any of the invasive species surveyed, which suggests a good level of protection. But that doesn’t mean they are safe, as invasive species can be found within 100km of the boundaries of almost all areas. For 89% of them, invasive species are just 10 kilometers from their limits.

The largest proportion of invaded protected areas was colonized by alien birds (252 species), followed by mammals (91 species), invertebrates (63 species), amphibians (48 species), and reptiles (66 species). Some of the most common invasive species are the Rock Dove (Columba livia) and the Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

The study also looked at the common factors among the protected areas that are already home to alien species. They found that protected areas tend to have more alien animal species if they have a larger human footprint index, due to factors such as transport links and large human populations nearby.

The larger and more recently established areas tend to have more alien species, according to the study. Meanwhile, older protected areas tend to be in more remote areas, so they are less exposed to human impacts.

“At the moment most protected areas are still free of most animal invaders, but this might not last. Areas readily accessible to large numbers of people are the most vulnerable,” said in a statement Li Yiming, senior author. “We need to increase efforts to monitor and record invasive alien species that people may bring into protected areas.”

The researchers concluded that while invasive species long been discussed as a threat in protected areas, far more action is required to protect these areas. For instance, the researchers suggest implementing routine monitoring of visitors and vehicles entering protected areas.

There is thus an urgent need to integrate efforts from the scientific community, governments, NGOs, landowners and local stakeholders to develop more effective biosecurity strategies to pre-empt potential further invasions in protected areas under ongoing global change, the researches argued.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Human encroachment on the world’s protected natural areas is increasing

The most comprehensive analysis to date of human activity within protected areas has found that the world’s most precious natural habitats are under increasing “anthropogenic pressure”.

A herd of wild horses. Credit: Pixabay.

For their study, researchers at the University of Cambridge, used satellite imagery of night lights and agricultural activity, as well as crop yields, in order to assess the impact of human encroachment in 12,315 protect areas in over 150 countries between 1995 and 2010.

In order to gauge the effectiveness of protected areas, the researchers compared them to a matching sample of unprotected land. Every satellite pixel, corresponding to 64 square kilometers of a protected area, was directly compared to a pixel of an area without a conservation status, in terms of soil type, elevation, and other important makers.

Unfortunately, the results suggest that we are not doing enough to ensure the protection of some of the world’s last bastions of biodiversity. Most protected areas in the world have suffered increases in human pressure, rather than decreases as they should have.

“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 from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute. “These places house a disproportionately high amount of the Earth’s biodiversity, and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining our most threatened species.”

Although protection in the Northern Hemisphere and Australia had, generally speaking, managed to slow down the impact of human encroachment compared to unprotected habitats, other parts of the world have experienced a marked increase in the pressure they felt.

South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia are home to some of the richest biodiversity and the poorest communities. Due to economic scarcity, human activity looking to extract and process resources in protected areas has been, on average, higher than in matched unprotected areas. The less developed the nation — as measured in terms of fewer roads and a lower rank in the Human Development Index — the higher the impact of human encroachment.

“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,” said lead author Dr. Jonas Geldmann from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.

Current protected areas (green shade) in each EPPA region (units are million km2). AFR Africa, ANZ Australia and New Zealand, ASI Higher Income East Asia, CAN Canada, CHN China, EET Eastern Europe, EUR European Union, FSU Former Soviet Union, IDZ Indonesia, IND India, JPN Japan, LAM Latin America, MES Middle East, MEX Mexico, ROW Rest of the World, USA United States of America. Credit: Melillo et al, Ambio, 2016.

Protected areas are not only vital to conserving biodiversity, but they also perform a variety of functions important to people including microclimate control, carbon storage, soil erosion control, pollination, watershed protection, and water supply, soil formation, nutrient recycling, and inspiration and a sense of place.

Terrestrial protected areas, portions of the global landscape isolated to conserve nature, are currently estimated to occupy about 13% of the Earth’s land surface. However, protected areas currently account for about one-fifth of the carbon sequestered by all land ecosystems annually.

According to the researchers, establishing new protected areas in order to meet global emissions targets, such as the Paris Agreement, is counterproductive unless sufficient effort and investment are awarded to halt human encroachment. The study found that agriculture, in particular, is the driving force behind threats to protected areas. In Sub-Saharan grasslands, for instance, croplands inside protected areas have increased at nearly double the rate in matched unprotected areas. Pressure from agriculture in protected African mangroves increased by 13% more than in matched unprotected areas. In South America, especially outside the Amazon, agricultural pressure increased by 10% in protected areas.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropics,” said Geldmann. “Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed.”

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed,” Geldmann said.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Credit: papahanaumokuakea.gov

Northwestern Hawaiian Islands now largest protected area on the planet

Credit: papahanaumokuakea.gov

Credit: papahanaumokuakea.gov

In a landmark moment, President Obama used his executive powers to quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The sanctuary will now encompass 582,578 square miles of land and sea, amply protecting one of the most biodiverse places in the world from fishing, underwater mining, and pollution.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, also known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, was first designated as a protected area by George W. Bush a decade ago. The archipelago which lies 270 miles northwest of Oahu is home to more than 14 million birds from 22 species, nearly all of the remaining endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles and Laysan albatrosses. It is here also that we can find the world’s oldest living animal, a 4,000-year-old coral, but also six seamounts which are teeming with life.

In those areas where the Marine National Monument expanded, all commercial activities will be prohibited. This didn’t bode well with local fishermen who say 60 percent of federal waters off Hawaii are now closed to fishing, catch valued at $100 million. Recreational fishing will be allowed with a federal permit, however.

On September 1, President Obama is expected to visit Midway Atoll — a remote place in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument where an important WWII battle took place — to celebrate the decision and raise awareness on the dangers of climate change, particularly rising sea levels.