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.

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