Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—© Florian Schulz


Fulfilling a Promise

Creating protected areas is a critical first step, but reaping their benefit requires more than lines on maps.

More than a century ago, a bold idea was developed in the United States by a group of visionary leaders: Set aside some of the most beautiful natural areas and protect them from development to ensure that they would be around for future generations. Ken Burns called it “America’s best idea” in his epic documentary on national parks.

The first national parks were created largely to preserve areas known for their scenic beauty, and resulted in the protection of such iconic places as Yosemite and Yellowstone. Other areas were preserved as wildlife refuges used by hunters, or as national forests to maintain sustainable timber resources. Since that time, the concept of designating protected areas to safeguard critical wild places, along with their fauna and flora, has taken hold around the globe.

In 2010, the United Nations set a goal of protecting 17 percent of our planet’s land area and 10 percent of its oceans by 2020, and we’ve almost reached those goals. There are an estimated 220,000 protected areas globally today—twice the number that existed in 1992—and about 15 percent of all land area is under nationally designated protection. But declaring a protected area is only a first step. Preserving these places and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they support requires a more dedicated and sustained effort.

A recent study in the journal Science by a team from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that more than one-third of protected areas on land are under intense human pressure, and unlikely to be serving their intended functions for conservation. Activities such as road building, mining, logging, grazing of livestock, and urbanization inside these parks have degraded ecosystems and natural processes in those areas and driven a decline in their biodiversity.

Of the roughly 42,000 areas studied for the new report, only 10 percent were completely free of intense human pressure, and only 42 percent had limited human pressure. Researchers also found that the human pressure within protected areas has grown by 6 percent since 1993 when the Convention for Biological Diversity was first ratified, and has increased in more than half of the protected areas established before 1993.

What’s going on? Despite the best intentions in creating protected areas, the world is changing quickly. The global economy is expanding to meet the needs of a growing human population. With our scientific and technological capacity expanding to address once-intractable problems like extreme poverty and disease, the demand for natural resources has likewise increased. And many nations are now allowing extractive industries to reach into areas once set aside for nature conservation.

Kaziranga National Park—© Ami Vitale

To combat this growing threat, we must improve management and monitoring in protected areas, and make sure there are effective tools in place for long-term conservation. We need to increase funding, build capacity, and use technology to improve protections. This is especially challenging in developing countries with urgent social and economic needs. But the wild places in these countries represent some of the world’s last great strongholds of nature and we cannot afford to lose them.

Our experience tells us that it is possible to protect critical ecosystems from unsustainable development. India’s Kaziranga National Park is home to critical populations of tigers, Asian elephants, and Indian one-horned rhinoceroses. Despite intense poaching pressure, particularly for commercially valuable rhino horn, these species are thriving in Kaziranga, thanks to the efforts of the dedicated, skilled ranger patrol teams funded by the government of India.

In addition, more than 50 percent of the Amazon is currently secured under national park designation or as indigenous territory, and many of these areas are showing that they can withstand the growing demand for natural resources. Some of the best-preserved areas in the region are Madidi National Park in Bolivia and Yasuní Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador—places where WCS has made considerable conservation investments to stave off degradation.

Critical to these efforts is a landscape-wide approach that addresses the use of land immediately adjacent to protected areas that is often managed by indigenous people.

Madidi National Park—© Rob Wallace/WCS

Research suggests that properly managed logging operations outside the boundaries of protected areas can help ensure that forests persist and critical habitats are maintained within park boundaries, despite growing demand for resources. Such efforts not only generate income for local people but also create a community of avid defenders of nearby forests and protected areas.

If we apply lessons learned in these landscapes, we can better protect parks and reserves in other nations attempting to achieve their commitments to biodiversity protection.

That includes the United States, where nearly 150 years after the establishment of the country’s first national park, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates there are more than 34,000 protected areas covering close to 9.5 million square kilometers—13 percent of the nation’s land area. The U.S. government’s recent plans to explore oil and gas in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge serves as a stark reminder that the challenge of effectively preserving protected areas is not a developing-country problem. It’s one that affects us all, and it may well be more urgent and relevant today than it’s ever been.

“We have become great,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the movement to protect nature, “because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

At the time, Roosevelt’s question was rhetorical. Our obligation to future generations is to deny them an answer.

Yasuní Biosphere Reserve—© Pete Oxford

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—© Florian Schulz

Cristián Samper

Cristián Samper, a tropical biologist and international authority on conservation biology and environmental policy, is president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society(WCS). Samper joined WCS in August 2012 after serving for a decade as Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the world’s largest natural history collection. Follow him on Twitter @CristianSamper.

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