Are protected areas an effective approach to conservation?
This International Day for Biological Diversity (22 May), we’re taking a deep dive into protected areas (PAs). As a conservation strategy, why do managed protected areas – such as national parks – actually work?
Protected areas are, broadly speaking, designated areas given special legal protections with the aim of conserving wildlife, and cultural and natural heritage.
Contrary to popular belief, protected areas aren’t always “wildernesses” devoid of human activity or settlement. In some cases, people live inside protected areas. So, while conservation is one priority, the livelihoods and sustainable development in and around the sites are just as crucial to a PA’s success.
While no two protected areas are the same, there are several common reasons why they work, even across diverse contexts and ecosystems. Below we’ll outline five reasons why protected areas are effective in both conserving biodiversity and yielding other benefits.
1. Protected areas tackle climate change
Fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity are two fundamentally inextricable goals.
Terrestrial ecosystems such as forests and peatlands store enormous volumes of carbon, thereby helping to regulate our climate. Tropical forests alone hold over 210 gigatons of carbon – that’s seven times the amount humans emit annually.
Take Central Cardamom Mountains National Park in Cambodia. The country’s first protected area Cardamom’s forest cover is over 96 per cent intact. That’s 10,000 km2 of dense rainforest sequestering whopping amounts of carbon for humans and animals alike.
Without precious carbon sinks such as Cardamom, our climate would be under even more pressure than it already is. And yet, more than a hectare’s worth of tropical forest is still destroyed or degraded every single second. That’s why these rich ecosystems need strong legal protection, as well as effective management.
2. Protected areas preserve habitats for wildlife
With up to one eighth of the world’s known species at risk of extinction, it’s no exaggeration to say that we are facing a devastating biodiversity crisis. To have any hope of slowing this decline, we need to leave space for nature.
Many species suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation. When urban areas expand or roads are built, animal populations are divided and ecosystems disrupted. Protected areas ensure large swathes of contiguous habitat where species can flourish.
Consider a landscape like Gunung Leuser National Park, found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which is the only place on earth collectively home to the endangered species of tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos. The 26,000km2-strong ecosystem offers a safe haven for some of the world’s most threatened mammals.
Some protected areas also function as key eco-corridors, which allow wildlife to move freely and safely between habitats.
3. Protected areas promote sustainable livelihoods
“I joined this training in order to become a park monitor, to work and build a family,” explains Anália Tchetupona Cristiano, a field ranger in Iona National Park, Angola. “I want to be able to buy cornmeal and rice for my children in the future.”
When managed properly, protected areas are levers for much-needed social and economic development. PAs often function as economic centres that attract tourism, generate employment, and inspire entrepreneurism.
When Madidi National Park was established in 1995, it was a hotspot for mahogany extraction and wildlife hunting. Over time, however, ecotourism replaced illegal logging as the area’s main source of income.
Conservation programs in the protected area now support a long list of business initiatives: shade coffee production, wild cacao production, jatata palm harvesters, and spectacled caiman managers. This case serves as an example of how protected areas can drive more funding to a region, clamp down on illegal resource extraction, and diversify income streams.
4. Protected areas help to manage human-wildlife conflict
When a jaguar kills cattle or an elephant destroys a field of crops, livelihoods are damaged. Naturally, this also threatens biodiversity by driving up defensive or retaliatory killings, and de-incentivising conservation efforts. For everyone’s sake, it’s essential to devise ways that humans and animals can co-exist in peace.
Protected areas can assist with this process. Often, PAs serve as important zones where wildlife can live in relative freedom and safety. In cases where humans and wildlife co-exist within and surrounding protected areas, extra funding and resources can be devoted to mitigating the conflict and engineering solutions that work for both parties.
In the areas surrounding Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe, elephants regularly raid crop fields and wipe out harvests – sometimes a whole year’s worth in one night. That’s why the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust started the Kacholo Chili Company to farmers in the area.
The aim of the initiative was to introduce an alternative, viable cash crop to communities while also deterring elephants, who find the spicy plant rather unpalatable and are inclined to avoid it. Since the project began in 2021, it has expanded quickly, with over 200 farmers now involved in the scheme.
The low-grade chilis that can’t be sold are also fashioned into chili bricks, which are then used to deter elephants from entering other crop fields.
5. Protected areas advance research and education
“Understanding more about the flora and fauna which reside in a landscape not only aids in conservation planning but also informs local communities about their natural resources,” explains Ret Thaung, Biodiversity and Science Manager at Central Cardamom Mountains National Park in Cambodia.
The more we know about nature, the better we can protect it. Protected areas are often lively hubs for research and scientific advancement. They allow us to study wildlife populations, ecosystem dynamics, and human-wildlife interactions in great depth over long periods.
This influx in knowledge also spills over into the surrounding communities and unlocks further educational opportunities in the region. Protected areas often also harbour medicinal plants that might be key to human health.