One-third of the world’s nature reserves threatened by humans
In the 146 years since Yellowstone National Park in thenorth-western United States became the world’s first protected area, nationsaround the world have created more than 200,000 terrestrial nature reserves.Together they cover more than 20 million km², or almost 15% of the planet’sland surface – an area bigger than South America.
Governments establish protected areas so that plants and animalscan live without human pressures thatmight otherwise drive them towards extinction. These are special places, giftsto future generations and all non-human life on the planet.
But in a study published shows that roughly one-third of theglobal protected area estate (a staggering 6 million km²) is under intense humanpressure. Roads, mines, industrial logging,farms, townships and cities allthreaten these supposedly protected places.It is well established that thesetypes of human activities are causing the decline and extinction of speciesthroughout the world. But recent research shows how widespread these activitiesare within areas that are designated to protect nature.
We assessed the extent and intensity of human pressure insidethe global protected area estate. Our measure of human pressure was based onthe “human footprint” – a measure that combines data on built environments,intensive agriculture, pasturelands, human population density, night-timelights, roads, railways, and navigable waterways.
Astoundingly, almost three-quarters of countries have at least50% of their protected land under i
ntense human pressure – that is, modified by mining, roads, townships, loggingor agriculture. The problem is most acute in western Europe and southern Asia.Only 42% of protected land was found to be free of measurable human pressure.
A growing footprint
Across Earth, there is example after example of large-scalehuman infrastructure within the b
oundaries of protected areas. Major projects include railways through TsavoEast and Tsavo Westnational parks in Kenya, which are home to the critically endangered easternblack rhinoceros and lions famous for their strange lack of manes. Plans to add a six-lane highwayalongside the railway are well underway.
Many protected areas across the Americas, including SierraNevada De Santa Marta in Colombiaa
nd Parque Estadual Rio Negro Setor Sul in Brazil, are straining under thepressure of densely pop
ulated nearby towns and rampant tourism. In the US, both Yosemite andYellowstoneare also suffe
ring from the increasingly sophisticated tourism infrastructure beingbuilt inside their borders
In highly developed, megadiverse countries such as Australia,the story is bleak. A classic example is Barrow Island National Park in WesternAustralia,which is home to endangered mammals such as the spectacledhare-wallaby, burrowing bettong, golden bandicoot and black-flankedrock-wallaby, but which also houses major oil and gas projects.
While government sanctioned,internationally funded developments like those in Tsavo and Barrow Island areall too common, protected areas also face impacts from illegal activities.Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra – a UNESCO world heritage sitethat is home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, orangutan andrhinoceros – is also now home to more than 100,000 people who have illegallysettled and converted around 15% of the park area for coffee plantations.
Fulfilling the promise of protected areas
Protected areas underpin much of our efforts to conserve nature.Currently, 111 nations have reached the global standard 17% target for protectedland outlined in the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. But if wediscount the supposedly protected land that is actually under intense humanpressure, 74 of these 111 nations would fall short of the target. Moreover, theprotection of some specific habitat types – such as mangroves and temperateforests – would decrease by 70% after discounting these highly pressured areas.
Governments around the world claim that their protected areasare set aside for nature, while at the same time approving huge developmentsinside their boundaries or failing to prevent illegal damage. This is likely amajor reason why biodiversity continues to decline despite massive recentincreases in the amount of protected land.
Our results do not tell a happy story. But they do provide atimely chance to be honest about the true condition of the world’s protectedareas. If we cannot relieve the pressure on these places, the fate of naturewill become increasingly reliant on a mix of nondescript, largely untestedconservation strategies that are subject to political whims and difficult toimplement on large enough scales. We can’t afford to let them fail.
We know that protected areas can work. When well-funded,well-managed and well-placed, they are extremely effective in halting thethreats that cause species to die out. It is time for the global conservation communityto stand up and hold governments to account so they take conservationseriously. This means conducting a full, frank and honest assessment of thetrue condition of our protected areas. A&W