Protected areas – often referred to as parks – are one of the most widely implemented and effective strategies for protecting biodiversity. However, many parks and the species protected by them are under threat of human encroachment or disturbance, particularly due to pressure from resource extraction, agricultural expansion, and human population growth. A new study led by Princeton University finds that strengthening protection for areas already protected under law or by local communities is as critical for safeguarding biodiversity as creating new protected areas.
The article, published in the journal Science Advances, found that about 70 per cent of the roughly 5000 species analyzed either have no apparent representation in protected areas, occur in protected areas that have been downgraded, downsized or removed from protection, or would be especially vulnerable to extinction from future land-use change. But, by enhancing the protection of existing protected areas, and by expanding the existing park networks across just 1 per cent of the planet's land area, the essential habitats of 1191 animal species that are especially at risk of extinction can be protected.
Parks save species. But they can do so only if the parks themselves are protected against harmful activities. Our study demonstrates just how important it is to protect the places that protect species."
David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton's Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment
These findings of the new study come amid growing recognition of the need to conserve the planet's species diversity by creating new protected areas. At the United Nations biodiversity conference COP15 in December 2022, for example, countries agreed on a target to set aside 30 per cent of the planet's lands and seas as protected areas. The latest research sheds light on another important aspect of wildlife conservation – ensuring that already protected areas continue to remain a safe space for biodiversity.
"Our study pinpoints where new parks can be created, but also where to restore and reinforce existing parks in order to boost wildlife conservation," said Yiwen Zeng, lead author of the study who completed the research as an associate research scholar at Princeton's Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment.
"Many global discussions on conservation rightfully focus on the need to create new protected areas, but our study also shows the importance of ensuring that protected areas remain effective at keeping out harmful human activity," said Zeng, who is now a research assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.
This is key as protected areas can be vulnerable to harmful human activities if there is insufficient enforcement or a lack of political backing for wildlife conservation. Parks become less effective at protecting species when they experience such downgrading, downsizing or removal from protection, which occur when a government decides to roll-back the legal protections governing a park, diminishing the degree or extent of protection afforded to it. These changes could result in forest clearance for infrastructure expansion, mining or other activities, and translate to the loss or degradation of habitats.
As of 2021, over 278 million hectares of parks are known to have been cumulatively subject to these types of degradations, the researchers found. For example, Megophrys damrei is a critically endangered frog found only in Cambodia and nowhere else in the world. Even though its habitat is protected, the area continues to experience habitat degradation and loss within national park boundaries and in the adjacent surroundings.
Additionally, expanding the protected area network could benefit species whose habitats currently lack sufficient protection. For instance, the study found that protecting an additional 330 square kilometers of natural landscapes within Indonesia would safeguard the suitable habitats of 53 species that currently lack protected area coverage and have limited area of habitat.
"There are many wonderful examples in conservation of people fighting to protect species, but there is always a risk that when you take your eye off the ball, pressure builds and hard-won protection is lost," said Rebecca Senior, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and now assistant professor of ecology at Durham University in the UK. "Designating parks on paper is not enough; they need to be in the right places, with the right management, and they need to last," Senior said.
Zeng, Y., et al. (2023) Gaps and Weaknesses in the Global Protected Area Network for Safeguarding At-Risk Species. Science Advances. doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.adg0288.