Study finds world's protected areas not protecting biodiversity, but there is room for hope

June 24, 2014

Scientists from James Cook University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Queensland, Stanford University, BirdLife International, the International Union for Nature Conservation, and other organizations have warned that the world's protected areas are not safeguarding most of the world's imperilled biodiversity, and clear changes need to be made on how nations undertake future land protection if wildlife is going to be saved. These findings come at a time when countries are working toward what could become the biggest expansion of protected areas in history.

The authors of the new study found that 85 percent of world's 4,118 threatened mammals, birds, and amphibian species are not adequately protected in existing national parks, and are therefore vulnerable to extinction in the near term. The new study appears in the esteemed international journal PLOS Biology.

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

The 193 national signatories of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) made a global commitment in 2010 to increase the world's terrestrial protected area network from 13 to 17 percent by the year 2020. However, by using computer models to simulate scenarios for future protected expansion, the authors discovered that these new parks could still miss most of the world's unprotected biodiversity.

"Our findings clearly demonstrate that if future protected area expansion continues in a 'business-as-usual' fashion, threatened species coverage will increase only marginally," said Associate Professor James Watson, WCS's Climate Change Program Director and a Principle Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, and senior author on the study. "The problem is that countries tend to favour land that is cheap to protect when establishing new parks, instead of focusing on land that is important for wildlife. Cheap is easy, but we show that it doesn't do much for conserving imperilled species."

The key to safeguarding the world's most at-risk fauna and flora is to link threatened species coverage to protected area expansion, which would combine two of the commitments made by the parties to the CBD, known collectively as the Aichi Targets.

"By formalizing the interdependence of protecting both wild terrestrial areas and threatened species, we can greatly increase the chances of maintaining Earth's biological diversity for future generations," said Professor Hugh Possingham of the University of Queensland. "When these goals are combined, countries are much more likely to create new parks in biologically threatened areas, which will lead to long-term dividends for global conservation."

"There's no getting around it," concludes Venter. "Parks are simply unable to perform the important task of conserving species unless they are established with that intention in mind. If we cover 30 percent of the globe in parks using a business-as-usual approach, many threatened species will miss out. But when imperilled species are targeted, we found that many cost-efficient options emerged for including them within new parks."
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The authors of the study are: Oscar Venter of James Cook University and the University of Queensland; Richard Fuller of the University of Queensland; Daniel B. Segan of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Queensland; Josie Carwardine of CSIRO Ecosystem Science; Thomas Brooks of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the University of the Philippines, and the University of Tasmania; Stuart H.M. Butchart of BirdLife International; Moreno Di Marco of the Global Mammal Assessment Program, Sapienza Universitá di Roma; Takuya Iwamura of Stanford University; Liana Joseph of the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society; Damien O'Grady of James Cook University; Hugh P. Possingham of the University of Queensland and Imperial College London; Carlo Rondinini of Global Mammal Assessment Program, Sapienza Universitá di Roma; Robert J. Smith of the University of Kent; Michelle Venter of James Cook University; and James E.M. Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Queensland.

Wildlife Conservation Society

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