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One-Third of World’s Protected Areas under Intense Human Pressure

An illegal fishing village located in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. | Andy Plumptre, Wildlife Conservation Society

Globally, one-third of protected land is under intense pressure from road building, grazing, urbanization, and other human activities, according to a new study in the 18 May issue of Science. The results suggest that protected areas, such as designated wilderness, national parks and habitat rehabilitation areas created to stem the loss of biodiversity, are not as well guarded as once thought.

Nations around the world have committed to preserving biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), through protected status designations ranging from nature reserves with strict controls on human impact to regions where people can extract natural resources in a sustainable way. This study suggests that many of these nations are failing to meet their conservation goals.

James Watson, a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an author of the study, noted that 111 nations currently claim they have meet their obligations under the CBD based on the extent of their protected areas. "But if you only counted the land in protected areas that are not degraded, which play a role in conserving biodiversity, 77 of these nations don't meet the bar. And it's a low bar."

Watson spent years traveling different landscapes for work. "While it allowed me to see some great conservation in action, it was clear that many protected areas were being overrun by humanity, in the form of logging, mining, villages, roads and agriculture, and I felt the issue was getting worse. I was surprised to find that no one had mapped this issue across global protected areas, as it is so incredibly important in global discussions of post-2020 biodiversity strategies."

Watson and a team of researchers decided to take advantage of a recently released human footprint map to look at the degradation of protected areas. The global map combines data on built environments, intensive agriculture, pasture lands, human population density, nighttime lights, roads, railways and navigable waterways.

"The results are quite staggering," said Watson. "We found that 2.3 million square miles — twice the size of Alaska — was impacted by road building, grazing, logging, roads and urbanization. That is 32.8% of all protected land — the land set aside by nations for the purpose of biodiversity conservation — that] is highly degraded."

Iguana in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. | Jaime Palacios, Wildlife Conservation Society

Regions that were found to be particularly burdened by human activity include western Europe and southern Asia.

In terms of protected land that is free of any measurable human pressure, 42% could be classified as such; however, many of these areas are within remote regions of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada.

Some conservation efforts have been fruitful, though. "We did see glimmers of hope," said Watson. "Many protected areas that were identified as 'strict' protected areas seemed to be doing a good job, even in areas that are being massively eroded by humanity."

For example, Watson points to Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, and Niassa Reserve in Mozambique, which he says may be successful thanks to support from non-governmental organizations and consistent financial assistance from national and international donors.

Protected areas designated after 1993 have a lower level of intense human pressure within their borders than those previously designated, the authors found. They suggest this may indicate that more recently designated areas were targeted as protected spaces because they were recognized as being under low human pressure.

"We need to recognize that simply declaring a protected area is only the first step that nations must take. Helping [protected areas] succeed requires more sustained and dedicated effort," Watson emphasized.

"We are undertaking research to identify those intact, biologically important places around the world that still need protection and the mechanisms that will best ensure they are protected."


[Credit for related image: Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador/ Julie Larsen Maher, Wildlife Conservation Society]