Protected Areas Don't Protect Many Endangered Species, Study Finds

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
April 7, 2004
The good news is that more than a tenth of the Earth's land surface is
now a designated safe haven for wildlife, exceeding international
targets. But the bad news, according to a new study, is that many of the
world's most threatened species don't actually live in those areas.

Now scientists behind the study are calling for an urgent review of global conservation strategies. They say national parks and wildlife reserves, no matter how large, won't prevent wide-scale extinctions in coming decades if they aren't created in the right places.

The study involved 21 scientists from nine countries—Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Italy, Kenya, South Africa, the U.K., and the United States. They looked at how effectively species diversity is represented in protected areas.

Having assessed 11,633 species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and turtles, the scientists identified more than 300 critically endangered animals living wholly outside protected areas. Left unprotected, these species face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

In addition, 237 endangered and 267 vulnerable animals were also found to be completely unprotected in any part of their ranges. The findings appear in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) organizes the World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas every ten years to take stock of protected areas, appraise progress and setbacks, and chart the course for the sanctuaries over the next decade.

At the Fourth World Congress—held in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1992—it was agreed to set a goal to extend the network of Earth's protected areas to cover at least 10 percent of each major biome (major ecological community types, such as forests, deserts, and grasslands) by 2000.

At the Fifth World Congress—held last year in Durban, South Africa—it was announced that the global network of protected areas now exceeded 11.5 percent of the planet's land surface, and that the target set a decade earlier had been surpassed in 9 out of 14 major terrestrial biomes.

But the new study suggests this has been achieved by concentrating on largely uninhabited ecosystems of low economic value. Meanwhile, many biodiversity hotspots have been left in out the cold.

"No matter how appealing arbitrary percentage targets might be from a political standpoint, we should focus specifically on those places with the greatest concentrations of threatened and endemic species," said Gustavo Fonseca, professor of zoology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Fonseca is also vice president for programs and science at Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International, the lead research organization behind the study.

Largest National Park

At 375,398 square miles (972,000 square kilometers), Greenland National Park ranks as the world's largest national park—larger than England and France combined. It alone makes up 6 percent of the total area covered by the global network of protected areas.

"While the importance of this park is not being questioned, it contributes little to coverage of global species diversity," said study co-author Ana Rodrigues, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Biodiversity Science.

Rodrigues says this is because the Arctic region is naturally species poor—the park was found to contain just eight mammals, while no amphibians, freshwater turtles, or globally threatened birds were recorded.

In contrast, Mount Kinabalu Park, in northern Borneo, is a thousand times smaller than Greenland National Park at 300 square miles (800 square kilometers) and has 153 mammals (21 globally threatened), 17 globally threatened birds, 74 amphibians (14 threatened), and eight freshwater turtles (six threatened).

Rodrigues says such regions aren't necessarily without any protection, but urgently require additional coverage. The majority are in tropical and subtropical countries—for example, the Atlantic Forest of eastern Brazil, which boasts many endemic species.

The forest overlaps the most densely populated region of Brazil, including Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with 18 and 11 million people, respectively. "Most of the original ecosystem has been destroyed, and only about 7 percent remains, mainly in very fragmented patches. Much more protection is needed for this region," Rodrigues said.

Unprotected, critically endangered animals highlighted in the report include the Comoro black flying fox (a fruit bat) from Comoros, an island nation in the Indian Ocean; several brightly-colored mantella frogs found only in Madagascar; the yellow-eared parrot of the Colombian Andes; and the Burmese star tortoise from Myanmar.

Mantella Frog

"Such species of very narrow range will simply fall through the cracks if protected areas are not located very strategically," Rodrigues said. "For example, the critically endangered black-eared mantella frog is known only from an unprotected 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) area in Madagascar."

The study found that groups of animals with similarly small range sizes had the highest proportion of species living outside wildlife reserves and national parks. The team suggests other organisms with high levels of endemism (restricted or peculiar to a locality), such as plants and insects, are even less well represented inside the sanctuaries.

Rodrigues says conservation targets based purely on land area covered are politically appealing, because they provide a straightforward goal which is easy to measure.

But, Rodrigues added: "They do not provide any restrictions as to where those, say, 10 percent [of protected areas] should be located. This gives governments plenty of flexibility on how to achieve those targets, but it also means it's tempting to declare most protected areas in regions of lower economic interest—which are politically less challenging but frequently not the most valuable for conservation."

The risk of this approach is that once a country's conservation target is reached, subsequent protection is stalled, even if wildlife most at risk is located elsewhere.

Conservation International spokesperson Luba Vangelova said the new study "points to the need for a more targeted approach to conservation planning, lest the world's most threatened species drop off the planet even as the total protected area continues to increase."

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