Protected areas need to be more than just location leftovers of the world

Featured Image: World map with the total percentage of each country under protection. Source: WikiCommons

Source: Devillers, R., Pressey, R.L., Grech, A., Kittinger, J. N., Edgar, G. J., Ward, T., and Watson, R. (2015). Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of the establishment over need for protection? Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst., 25: 480–504. doi: 10.1002/aqc.2445

Source: Venter, O., Magrach, A., Outram, N., Klein, C. J., Possingham, H. P., Di Marco, M. and Watson, J. E. (2017). Bias in protected‐area location and its effects on long‐term aspirations of biodiversity conventions. Conserv Biol, 32: 127-134. doi:10.1111/cobi.12970


An all too familiar story we hear is the extinction and loss of species all over the globe. Every day, we lose a few more species. One would argue that in the era of the Anthropocene, saving biodiversity is a goal we as a global society must unite to fight for. One tool we have in protecting biodiversity is to establish protected areas for conservation efforts. Protected areas are locations chosen because of their recognized natural, ecological or cultural values. They are often unmanaged and provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered species and help keep important ecological processes alive in the world, which would not be maintained in agricultural-managed landscapes and seascapes.

Mappings the worlds protected areas

Across the globe, we have more than 200,000 protected conservation areas covering about 15% of the world’s land area and 2.3% of the oceans (Figure 1). The hope is to further expand the percentage of protected areas on land to 17% and in the ocean to 10% by 2020. Expansion of protected areas has been slowly occurring throughout the last decade. Yet, species declines continue.

One important question we should ask is why aren’t protected areas working?

Rodolphe Devillers from Memorial University and Oscar Venter from the University of Northern British Columbia asked this important question. Both delivered the same take-home message: protected areas are simply in the wrong places. Venter et al. (2017), who tackle terrestrial protected areas, concluded that protected areas are in locations that are more economically convenient than ecologically fitting for species. Protected areas are not located in places with high concentrations of species; instead, the areas situated on marginal lands which are the leftover areas of land we cannot use for agricultural purposes. When creating protected areas, minimizing conflict with agriculture seems to be a higher priority over the survival of species.

Just as on land, many marine protected areas (MPAs) have been created to accomplish long-term species conservation. Devillers et al. (2015), who tackle MPAs, argues that established global marine protected areas are too often in marginal areas that do not adequately protect the most vulnerable areas of the world’s oceans. This problem stems from the protected areas needing to be in areas that go beyond national jurisdictions, where governments do not have authority. Therefore, establishing MPAs is progressing much slower than the rate of marine species declines.

Protecting the leftovers

Just about anywhere a protected area is located, you can associate it with marginal areas. Areas that are residual leftovers of the world. Areas that least interfere with higher “human priorities” such as agriculture, forests, and fishing activities. Marginal land, by definition, makes the least difference to conservation because these locations are not targeting places with a high concentration of threatened species.

Terrestrial protected areas are mainly found on marginal lands, which range from having infertile soils, are cold or arid, remote, steep, or anything that makes land use difficult. According to Venter et al. (2017), their most disturbing finding was that if protection area growth between 2004 and 2014 had strategically targeted unrepresented threatened vertebrates, it would have been possible to protect >30 times more species.

Similar patterns are emerging in marine protected areas. An example Devillers et al. (2015) look at in more detail is the MPAs established in Australia. The Australia government added an impressive 2.3 million km² national and state MPAs but are biased towards deeper waters that are under relatively minor threat. The authors also note these MPAs face a further challenge- many areas permit extractive uses, such as trawling, long-lining, purse-seining and development for oil and gas. Consequently, and conveniently these areas are making little difference to species protection but tend to keep financial and political costs low.

Future of protected areas

Biodiversity continues to vanish in landscapes and seascapes which are suitable for the extraction of natural resources such as logging, grazing, fishing, oil, gas, and minerals. Meanwhile, marginal land protection gives a false appearance of progress because protected areas seem to be increasing in number and size, but in fact, they are falling behind in conservation success.

The main concern regarding protected areas is ensuring their ongoing effectiveness at preventing the loss of biodiversity. Several limitations that may impede success include protected areas being small in size and isolated from each other, both of which are important factors that influence the maintenance of species populations. Another factor not often taken into account is the influence that climate change, invasive species, and pollution have on protected areas.

With these many factors altering species distributions how will the movement of species change the way we think about protected areas? Maybe protected areas cannot be static locations anymore and need to be as dynamic as the complex interactions of species that inhabit them.

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Aleksandra Dolezal

I recently completed a Master of Science degree at the University of Guelph and am currently a new PhD student! My research investigates habitat-based drivers of arthropod abundance, richness and functional group composition in agricultural landscapes. When I am not doing research I am outside collecting insects or improving my photography skills. Twitter: Ecology_forlife

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