The establishment of protected areas is influenced more by economics than the needs of threatened species

Møysalen National Park, a Protected Area in Norway; Source: Wikimedia Commons

While the aim of creating protected areas is to conserve habitat that is necessary for the survival of threatened wildlife, historically these protected areas have been established on land that is deemed “economically marginal” — meaning that it is not especially valuable for activities that drive the economy, like agriculture or other human development. However, economically marginal land may not be where the greatest number of threatened species exist, actually the reality is quite the opposite. Venter et al. (2018) have discovered that not only do protected areas continue to be established in locations with low economic opportunity costs, this trend has actually intensified in recent years. A disregard for the purpose of protected areas, protecting threatened wildlife species, in favor of reducing lost economic opportunities diminishes their effectiveness as a conservation tool.


The Rules as Set Out in the Convention on Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has outlined expectations for creating protected areas in areas of “importance to biodiversity”. This expectation is vague, but is intended to prevent the extinction of all known threatened species. Originally it was agreed upon by countries involved in the CBD that protected areas would be expanded to cover 10% of the planet by 2010. In a renewal of the CBD, an expansion of an additional 17% was agreed on for 2020. Now it’s expected that we are able to target appropriate locations for protected areas more effectively because 1) we’ve gotten better at identifying these locations and 2) countries are more likely now to adhere to the expectations of the CBD in attempting to protect threatened species.


Increasing Neglect of Threatened Species

Venter and an international team of colleagues studied location biases of protected areas by comparing the agricultural opportunity cost and threatened vertebrate species richness in protected areas pre- and post-2004. The year 2004 was considered the break-point because this was the year that the Programme of Work on Protected Areas was committed to by the CBD parties. They found that protected areas established recently and in the past are  sited in a strategic manner so they do not encroach upon agriculturally-valuable land, as opposed to being situated in areas where high concentrations of threatened vertebrate species, specifically birds, mammals and amphibians, exist.


Figure 1. The (a) average annual agricultural opportunity cost of protection by 30-km grid squares in 2012 in U.S. dollars and (b) number of native and extant globally threatened terrestrial and freshwater birds, mammals, and amphibians per pixel (red, areas with high agricultural costs and high species richness). Reproduced with permission from O. Venter.


This economically, but not ecologically, strategic placement of protected areas has intensified in recent years, where these areas are on land that is on average one-quarter of the agricultural value of the global average. This is especially prevalent in the US, where larger protected areas are concentrated in Alaska and in less fertile regions in the West. It appears that trends formed in the past have not changed in favor of greater focus on the needs of threatened vertebrate species, and have actually intensified. What is lost in this trade-off that spares economically-valuable land is the protection of greater than 30 times more species of threatened vertebrates than what is currently protected.


As the amount of land available for the establishment of protected areas is already limited and declining over time, it’s necessary to pinpoint locations that are essential for the protection of the greatest number of threatened species and prioritize them as protected areas.


The Needs of Humans vs. Non-Humans

While this study shines a spotlight on a glaringly important issue affecting conservation practice, the authors do not attempt to suggest solutions that address the interests of both those who are invested in the protection of threatened species and those who are concerned with global food production and economic growth. The authors have pointed out that the true purpose of protected areas has been and continues to be neglected today, but they also point out that the amount of land available is shrinking. Both the number and size of protected areas have shrunk since before 2004 up to 2014. With that, the mantra of increasing conservation land is not all that simple – we have to take into consideration a variety of factors that ensure the success of conservation.


Should whatever land that is still available and hosts a great number of threatened species be turned into protected areas, even if this land could also potentially contribute to agriculture? Or should areas of productive agricultural land that are identified to be hotspots for threatened species be converted into protected areas? Is there a way to manage habitat so that it can simultaneously serve both purposes? A lot of factors come into play in the assignment of protected areas (political, economic, conservation-related) because productive land is needed by humans and wildlife. Here’s a question this article pre-emptively assumes an answer to: who does the land belong to – humans or threatened wildlife? I would say neither and both.


Venter, O., Magrach, A., Outram, N., Klein, C. J., Possingham, H. P., Di Marco, M. & J. E. M. Watson. 2018. Bias in protected-area location and its effects on long-term aspirations of biodiversity conventions. Conservation Biology 32:127-134

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Anika Hazra

Anika Hazra

I am a recent graduate of the MS program in Ecology and Evolution at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I conducted research on the interactions between the Bullhorn Acacia and its occupying ants in restored tropical forest in Mexico. I am currently pursuing a MA in Science Journalism at NYU. You can check out my science communication work at:

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