Half the World’s Key Nature Sites Still Unprotected

GLAND, Switzerland, March 22, 2012 (ENS) – Only half of the world’s most important wildlife sites have been fully protected, according to a new study led by BirdLife International, with contributions from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN.

Protected Areas are places established and managed for long-term conservation of nature, ranging from government-designated protected areas to community-managed reserves. Over 150,000 protected areas have been designated to date, covering 12.9 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface outside Antarctica.

Australia’s endangered laughing kookaburra (Photo by Jerremy Barredo)

“Protected areas are a cornerstone of conservation efforts, and cover nearly 13 percent of the world’s land surface,” says Dr. Simon Stuart, who chairs the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “In 2010, the world’s governments committed to expanding this to 17 percent by 2020, with an emphasis on areas of particular importance for nature.”

But new research has found that only half of these important areas are currently protected.

Researchers discovered this trend by analyzing the overlap between protected areas and two worldwide networks of important sites for wildlife – Important Bird Areas, which make up more than 10,000 globally significant sites for conserving birds; and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, which include 600 sites holding the last remaining population of highly threatened vertebrates and plants.

“Shockingly, half of the most important sites for nature conservation have not yet been protected,” says Dr. Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s global research and indicators coordinator. “Only one-third to one-fifth of sites are completely protected – the remainder are only partially covered by protected areas.”

The study analysed 10,993 Important Bird Areas around the world and found that 28 percent are completely covered by protected areas, 23 percent are partially protected and 49 percent are wholly unprotected.

“While coverage of important sites by protected areas has increased over time, the proportion of area covering important sites, as opposed to less important land for conservation, has declined annually since 1950,” said Butchart.

Critically Endangered Liben lark (Photo courtesy IUCN)

New protected areas should be created on the networks of sites considered to be the most important places for wildlife, the conservationists recommend.

For example, establishment of a protected area on the Liben Plain in Ethiopia would help to safeguard the future of the Critically Endangered Liben lark, Heteromirafra sidamoensis, which is found nowhere else.

Similarly, designation of a proposed reserve in the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti would protect 15 highly threatened frog species that are restricted to this single site.

“By using the IUCN Red List Index to measure changes in the status of species, and linking this to the degree of protection for important conservation sites,” says Butchart.

“We believe that protection of important sites may play an important role in slowing the rate at which species are driven towards extinction,” Butchart calculates, “by 50 percent for birds, if at least half of the Important Bird Areas at which they occur are protected, and by 30 percent for birds, mammals and amphibians restricted to protected areas compared with those restricted to unprotected or partially protected sites.”

Critically Endangered Northern bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, found in the Mediterranean off Malta. (Photo by BELGA/ARO courtesy European Parliament)

In addition to designating a comprehensive network of protected areas, governments must ensure that reserves are adequately managed. It is estimated that this would cost roughly US$23 billion per year – more than four times the current expenditure.

In countries with low or moderately low incomes, increased management funding would require less than one-tenth of this sum – double what is currently spent. Such sums may seem large, but are tiny by comparison to the value of the benefits that people obtain from biodiversity. Ecosystem services, such as pollination of crops, water purification and climate regulation, have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year.

Governments have made commitments to address biodiversity loss through the Convention on Biological Diversity. At the Conference of the Parties in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010, the 193 Parties agreed to a strategic plan with 20 ambitious targets.

Target 11: “By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”

Target 12: “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.