How to make national parks more efficient at saving animals

National parks are usually created on land that is too poor for agriculture and protect only 11% of endangered species. But researchers have found how we can do a better job without breaking the bank. Dyani Lewis reports.

Protected areas often don’t cover the land where the species they are supposed to protect live, like this endangered mountain pygmy possum. – Jason Edwards/Getty Images

As the global human population continues to balloon, our furred and feathered friends are being squeezed out. Extinctions have become an unpleasant commonality. Setting aside land in national parks, nature reserves and other protected areas is a mainstay of efforts to conserve biodiversity. But new research shows the current network of protected areas is doing a poor job of safeguarding the most vulnerable species.

Ten years ago, a landmark study in Nature found that protected areas – which then covered 11.5% of the world’s land surface – often don’t cover the land where the species they are supposed to protect live. One fifth of the mammals, birds and amphibians listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature were nowhere to be found in any protected areas, and only 11% were adequately protected.

After considerable expansion of the network, an international team of conservation scientists has taken a fresh look at whether protected areas are doing any better now. The sobering findings, published in PLoS Biology last month, show that there has been little improvement. Just 15% of threatened vertebrates are now adequately protected, and 17% still miss out entirely.

The new analysis also goes one step further, looking at whether future expansion of the network could enhance effectiveness while keeping an eye on a limited conservation budget.

Protected areas now cover 13% of the world’s land. But the richest land with the highest biodiversity is rarely set aside. “We're very good now at deciding what’s useless for agriculture and, unfortunately, that's what dominates the global protected-area system – places that we can’t plough up and turn into food,” says co-author Hugh Possingham of the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

'With better planning, future expansions of the network could make a big difference to threatened species at little additional cost.'

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international treaty established in 1992, has set a global target to expand the protected-area network to 17% of land by 2020. With an impressive 193 states and the European Union party to the convention, the target is likely to be met. But a second CBD target – to prevent the extinction of threatened species – could fall by the wayside, devaluing much of the effort. Intertwining the two targets is crucial, says James Watson, also from the University of Queensland, and the senior author of the recent paper.

The “good news story”, according Watson, is that his team’s analysis reveals that with better planning, future expansions of the network could make a big difference to threatened species at little additional cost.

A Sumatran orangutan is safe in Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia. Researchers say half of the threatened species could be adequately protected at relatively little more than the cost of business-as-usual. – Anup Shah/Getty Images

By overlaying data on threatened species’ geographic ranges with worldwide data on how much it would cost annually to forego agricultural development in these areas, the team determined the relative costs of protecting different pieces of land. They then looked at different scenarios for how land could be set aside to meet the 17% CBD target.

A business-as-usual projection – where governments continue to set aside only low-value land – would cost US$4.9 billion annually, and raise the percentage of threatened species adequately protected to just 21% (from the current 17%). Protecting all threatened species would cost 7.5 times that amount, they found. But the authors also identified a middle ground where close to half of the threatened species are adequately protected at just 1.5 times the cost of business-as-usual.

“Nations are clearly making a choice to go ‘cheap and nasty’, because of avoided opportunity costs,” says Watson. “Our point is it’s not that expensive, really. That’s a great victory for conservation for not much more cost.”

The finding is “a fundamental first step in understanding how we might do this value-added expansion of the protected-area network”, says Lucas Joppa of the Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences Group at Microsoft Research in the UK. But he cautions that convincing individual governments that a little extra can go a long way will be challenging. “It's not clear that the world's governments are willing to pony up real money” to protect high value land for the sake of threatened species, he says.

With the biggest expansion of the protected-area network currently underway, making the right decisions now about what land to protect is critical, says Watson. “The next decade really counts.”

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