New Study: Don’t Equate Size with Impact for Protected Areas

As global efforts to expand Earth’s total area under protection ramp up, it’s critical to balance size-based approaches with a focus on conservation impact to ensure maximum gains for nature and the billions that depend on it. If unchanged, current priorities in protected area targets could lead to detrimental consequences for conservation, according to new research published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The study, “Prevent Perverse Outcomes from Global Protected Area Policy,” acknowledges that creating new protected areas remains a vital component of global efforts to conserve nature and biodiversity. Its authors warn, however, that using size as the sole or even primary measure of success risks using up limited political capital on protecting areas that don’t maximize conservation benefits — leading to a global protected area network far less impactful than it could be.

“The risk isn’t just that we protect a lot of land or sea that doesn’t maximize benefits for nature – it’s that in doing so we could inadvertently make it harder to protect other, potentially more valuable areas,” said Megan Barnes, decision scientist at the University of Hawaii and lead author on the paper.

International targets adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) include the protection of at least 17 percent of land and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by the year 2020 (Aichi Biodiversity Target 11). Special emphasis is placed on areas of high ecological importance; however, researchers warn that a race to hit numerical targets risks ignoring impact and short-changing the underlying conservation goal.

While impact on species and habitats is broadly recognized as the crucial measure for protected areas by scientists and conservationists, current policy discussions about global protected area targets focus heavily on extent under protection, rather than outcomes for conservation.

“Using size alone to measure conservation success is like counting the beds in a hospital and ignoring whether or not the patients are getting better,” said Louise Glew, global lead scientist at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and contributing author on the paper. “We don’t just need more protected areas, we need to maximize our return on protected area investments. This means parks and reserves established in the right places, protecting as many species, habitats, and ecological functions as possible.”

The danger of so-called “paper parks” – protected areas that exist on maps but fail to deliver significant conservation benefits – extends beyond just local inefficiencies, say the authors. Their establishment often leads to an exaggerated public perception of success, fostering complacency and excusing inaction elsewhere. Alternatively, these areas’ lack of demonstrable conservation impact can bolster arguments against protecting other areas – often ones of critical ecological importance.

“The way international policy targets are currently designed, we risk ‘locking-in’ a global protected area estate designed to maximize area, not impact, particularly in countries where public or political appetite for expansion of parks and reserves is limited,” said Barnes.

“By creating parks with limited impact, we also reduce the benefits people see, and with that lose social license for conservation,” she added.

The researchers argue that policymakers, governments, and NGOs must stop measuring protected area success on size alone and start talking about things like how many fish will stay in the sea to grow and reproduce, or how many pangolins might be saved from wildlife trade.

Importantly, the upcoming renegotiation of the CBD Targets in 2020 in Beijing provides a critical window of opportunity to ensure future protected area establishment is smartly targeted to achieve global conservation goals.

“If we want future conservation targets to focus on measurable outcomes beyond area, we need to act now,” said Glew. “We know we can’t protect everything, so let’s make sure what we do protect gives us the biggest return possible.”

Link to study – “Prevent Perverse Outcomes from Global Protected Area Policy

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