Big increase in Earth’s protected areas

By John Pickrell | November 13, 2014

The planet’s 209,000 conservation reserves now cover 15.4 per cent of the land area, but are they doing enough to protect dwindling species?

THE COVERAGE OF the world’s protected areas has grown massively in the last four years, according to a new report released today at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney.

The survey revealed that since 2010, 6.1 million square kilometres have been added to the planet’s total conservation reserves – an area roughly equivalent to the size of Australia.

About 209,000 protected areas now cover 15.4 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial regions and inland waterways, and 3.4 per cent of its oceans.

On course for conservation targets

“Ten years ago, the IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban gave birth to the idea of global protected area targets,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Today in Sydney, we are proud to launch the Protected Planet report, which shows how well we have advanced in reaching our goals. We are committed to making sure that our promises are not empty.”

At another major international meeting – the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Japan in 2010 – the world’s nations agreed to work towards a target of protecting 17 per cent of terrestrial environments and 10 per cent of marine environments by 2020. The new figures offer hope that nations are on course to meet those targets.

“Protected areas not only provide us with a vital ecological safety net, but also play a vital economic role through the valuable ecosystem services they provide, from supplying water and timber, to sustaining tourism,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

“Losing the planet’s species at an alarming rate”

However, while total coverage has increased, there are still questions over the value of the land that has been protected.

An opinion piece published yesterday by ecologists Professor Bob Pressey at James Cook University in Townsville, and Dr Euan Ritchie at Deakin University in Melbourne, questioned why, as more of the world is protected than ever before, it is having so little effect in slowing the loss of its biodiversity.

“While protected-area systems expand, we are losing the planet’s species at an alarming rate,” the authors said in an article for The Conversation.

The problem, they argue is that “the majority of protected areas are residual — leftover areas of the world, pushed to the margins, where they least interfere with extractive activities, such as agriculture, mining, or forestry. On land, protected areas are mainly remote or high, cold, arid, steep, and infertile. Similar patterns are emerging in the sea. Residual protected areas, by definition, make least difference to conservation.”

Meanwhile, biodiversity is continuing to be lost in all of the landscapes suitable for “clearing, logging, grazing, fishing, and extraction of minerals, oil, and gas,” they said.

Effectiveness of the world’s protected areas

The new figures revealed today “show very good progress in terms of geographical coverage, but targeted expansion is needed, so that protected areas cover areas of importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, and are ecologically representative,” agreed Naomi Kingston of the UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, a co-author of the report.

“While there’s good progress towards increased coverage, we know far too little about the effectiveness of the world’s protected areas,” she said.

More than 5000 delegates from across the world have convened for the week-long World Parks Congress in Sydney. A major issue they will now be grappling with is how to make sure protected areas include the most important habitats and are doing a good job of conserving the world’s dwindling species.