New study suggests protecting land is no guarantee of biodiversity

With the world scrambling to safeguard 30% of the planet from development, researchers have issued a warning that simply stopping habitat destruction may not be enough to protect many species. 

A new study led by the universities of Exeter and Cambridge, UK, has shown the importance not just of creating protected habitats such as national parks but – crucially – the role good management of these areas plays in sustaining and re-establishing biodiversity. 

The research is particularly relevant right now, with world leaders preparing to gather in China next month to discuss conservation efforts and plans to protect 30% of the world’s surface from development by 2030. 

‘We know that protected areas can prevent habitat loss, especially in terms of stopping deforestation,’ said lead author Dr Hannah Wauchope, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall. ‘However, we have much less understanding of how protected areas help wildlife. Our study shows that, while many protected areas are working well, many others are failing to have a positive effect. Rather than focussing solely on the total global area protected, we need more focus on ensuring areas are well-managed to benefit biodiversity.’

The study – which is the largest of its kind ever conducted and included team members from Wetlands International, and the universities of Bangor, Queensland, Copenhagen, and Cornell – focussed on waterbirds in 1,500 protected areas across the globe, taking in more than 27,000 populations. Using a ‘before-after-control-intervention’ method, the process compared species in areas prior to becoming protected, and afterwards, in addition to comparing populations outside protected areas to those within. The result offers a much more accurate and detailed picture of the situation than had previously been possible. 

‘We are not saying protected areas don’t work,’ said Dr. Wauchope. ‘The key point is that their impacts vary hugely, and the biggest thing this depends on is whether they are managed with species in mind – we can’t just expect protected areas to work without appropriate management. It also appears that larger protected areas tend to be better than smaller ones.’

In related news, researchers at the University of Tennessee have been awarded a grant to develop new approaches to conservation, partly inspired by financial portfolio management. 

Image credit: Imran Shah





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