Protected areas failing to prevent human encroachment, shows conservation analysis in 152 countries

Scientists compiled data from 12,315 protected areas across 152 countries and deduced that a majority of protected areas in every global region have seen increased human pressure over the years.


                            Protected areas failing to prevent human encroachment, shows conservation analysis in 152 countries

Protected areas have failed to reduce human pressure on critical habitats, shows an analysis of human activity within thousands of conservation spaces in 152 countries. 

The findings, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, show the effects of chronic underfunding and a lack of involvement of local communities.

"Rapidly establishing new protected areas (PAs) to meet global targets without providing sufficient investment and resourcing on the ground is unlikely to halt the unfolding extinction crisis", says lead author Jonas Geldmann from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.

Dr. Geldmann says the analysis suggests that protected areas in more remote and wild parts of the tropics have experienced alarming increases in human pressure since 1995. "These places house a disproportionately high amount of the earth's biodiversity, and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining our most threatened species", Dr. Geldmann says.

The team - which also includes researchers from the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), UK; University of Copenhagen, Denmark; and Centre for International Forestry Research, Indonesia; says ensuring that PAs in these regions are effective should be a global priority. However, conservation efforts in many of these regions are heavily underfunded and in need of significant additional resources, if the current trajectory of pressure increases has to be reversed, they add.

Protected areas in more remote and wild parts of the tropics have experienced alarming increases in human pressure since 1995. (Getty Images)

The researchers further explain that the ambitious target of protecting 17% of land by the end of this decade, which is expected to increase to 30% at a meeting next year, will not mean much if not accompanied by enough resources to ensure the preservation of precious habitats.

"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", says Dr. Geldmann. 

The research team argues that protected area designation can sometimes undermine the rights of local communities, which, in turn, can end up encouraging over-exploitation and paving the way for opportunistic "outsiders." Other studies, they add, have shown that supporting indigenous people to manage reserves can reduce habitat loss.

"Our results confirm that focusing only on area-based targets is not enough, and even if we are on track to protect 17% of terrestrial earth by 2020, we will not have achieved the target 11% unless these areas are effectively and equitably protected", says the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The establishment of PAs, the team says, can weaken the tenure rights of indigenous and local communities, “eroding their authority to deter outsiders” and providing opportunities for other people or companies to enter the reserve. “This way, PA designation can spur encroachment rather than prevent it. Formal protection can undermine collective long-term resource-management regimes leading to local communities overexploiting previously sustainably used resources. Further, while ensuring the livelihood of local communities in and around PAs is increasingly integrated into PA objectives, protection can lead to loss of economic opportunities resulting in illegal use of resources from within the PA”, say experts.

What are PAs?

Protected areas (PAs) are a key strategy for conserving nature and halting the loss of biodiversity. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), besides being the mainstay of biodiversity conservation, protected areas, which include national parks, wilderness areas, community conserved areas, nature reserves, and protected landscape/seascape, among others, also contribute to people's livelihoods, particularly at the local level.

 

Protected areas, which include national parks, wilderness areas, community conserved areas, nature reserves, and protected landscape/seascape, among others, are a vital strategy for conserving nature and halting the loss of biodiversity. (Getty Images)

"Protected areas are at the core of efforts towards conserving nature and the services it provides us – food, clean water supply, medicines, and protection from the impacts of natural disasters. Their role in helping mitigate and adapt to climate change is also increasingly recognized; it has been estimated that the global network of protected areas stores at least 15% of terrestrial carbon", says IUCN.

To reverse unparalleled "human impact on the global environment" leading to dramatic declines in biodiversity, a growing number of multilateral environmental agreements have been adopted, most importantly the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). 

"A chief instrument of the Convention is the strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–20, whose targets call for the protection of 17% of the earth and 10% of the oceans. This has resulted in the rapid expansion of the global network of protected areas, which currently cover approximately 15% of the terrestrial surface and 7% of the world's oceans", says the research team.

They further say, "This is an impressive policy achievement, but merely designating PAs does not ensure the protection of biodiversity. PAs must deliver real conservation benefits by buffering the wild populations and habitats they contain from human pressures on the environment", says the research team.

The findings

According to the research team, one-sixth of the earth's surface now falls within protected areas (PAs), making it essential to understand how far they mitigate the increasing pressures on nature. The largest analysis of this question to date, which is not restricted to forested, the scientists compiled data from 12,315 protected areas across 152 countries to investigate their ability to reduce human pressure. They used satellite evidence of "night lights" and agriculture, as well as census and crop yield data, to assess levels of human encroachment in these protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

The analysis shows that a majority of protected areas in every global region have suffered increases in human pressure. In regions such as South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South-East Asia, home to the world's richest biodiversity as well as some of its poorest communities, pressure from damaging human activity inside protected areas was "significantly higher" on average than in matched areas outside PAs across 15 years of data.

The analysis shows that a majority of protected areas in every global region have suffered increases in human pressure. (Getty Images)

However, across the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, protection had - on average - proved effective at slowing human encroachment when compared with unprotected habitats.

"While many PAs show a positive outcome, strikingly we find that compared with matched unprotected areas, PAs have, on average, not reduced a compound index of pressure change over the past 15 years. Moreover, in tropical regions, average pressure change from cropland conversion has increased inside PAs even more than in matched unprotected areas. Our results show that the large focus on increasing terrestrial coverage toward 17% of the earth's surface has led to many PAs failing to stem human pressure. This is particularly the case for non-forested areas, which have not been assessed in the previous analysis", say the researchers in their findings.

The researchers found a link between increased human encroachment on protected areas and nations with fewer roads and a lower rank on the Human Development Index.

"Our results also show that countries with high national-level development scores have experienced lower rates of pressure increase over the past 15 years within their PAs compared with a matched outside area. The results caution against the rapid establishment of new PAs without simultaneously addressing the conditions needed to enable their success", says the team.

They add, "Our finding that human development is correlated to PA performance supports the argument that establishment is not enough. Similar relationships between protection and socio-economic factors have been shown for waterbirds and vertebrates more broadly as well as for deforestation."

The researchers say that lower human development scores can be linked to poor PA performance in multiple ways, including through increased corruption, weak law enforcement, and reduced engagement from stakeholders. “Our results thus suggest that PA management does not begin at the reserve boundary but requires more systemic changes and that without such processes in place, even well-resourced PAs are unlikely to succeed”, say experts.

While previous studies to compare protected and unprotected land have been limited to forests and shown that protected areas reduce deforestation, the current work confirms that protected areas are more effective in places like the Amazon, but have struggled to safeguard many other habitats such as savannahs.

Rises in human activity were found to be particularly acute in the protected areas of East and Central Africa. In Sub-Saharan grasslands, for example, cropland inside protected areas had increased at almost double the rate seen in matched unprotected land. In African mangroves, pressure from agriculture had increased by around 13% more inside protected areas than outside.

While in the remote grassland habitats of South East Asia, agriculture had increased by 8% more in protected areas compared to similar non-protected areas. Likewise, some forested areas in South America, particularly outside the Amazon, saw agricultural encroachment increase around 10% more in protected areas.

"Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropics. Our data do 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", says Dr. Geldmann. 

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