A Third Of The World's Protected Areas Are Being Destroyed By Humans

Many protected areas exist only on paper and in reality little is done to protect them. Rich Carey/Shutterstock

While more wildness is designated as a protected area than ever before, it seems that in many cases this is in name only. A new study has found that a third of the world’s protected areas are actually being degraded by human activities.

This is the sobering finding from a recent paper in Science, which looked into just how well “protected” these areas are. The assessment found that while lots of countries are quick to create protected areas, few follow this up, meaning that many are simply not fit for purpose.


“A well-run protected area network is essential in saving species,” said Kendall Jones, who led the research. “If we allow our protected area network to be degraded there is a no doubt biodiversity losses will be exacerbated.”

The work shows that a distressing 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) – more than twice the size of Argentina – are now under "intense human pressure" from activities such as deforestation, road building, farming, mining, and even the construction of new cities. These projects were not limited to one part of the world but seen in parks on every continent, with only 10 percent of areas assessed free from any human impact.

It might be easy to take this as evidence that protected areas don’t work, but this is fundamentally not true. In general, conservation areas have been a huge success story.

A paper that came out a few years ago showed unequivocally that the biodiversity within protected areas was significantly higher than it was outside these areas. The researchers found that the number of individual plants and animals was around 15 percent higher, while the number of species was an impressive 11 percent higher in 1,939 protected areas around the planet.


Interestingly, that study found that it was not necessarily the presence of a park that led to the increase in biodiversity, but how these areas were managed. This throws into question the effectiveness of targets to increase the overall area of protected land to 17 percent by 2020 if an area is only “protected” on paper, and not backed up by proper management and protection.

“We know protected areas work – when well-funded, well-managed and well-placed, they are extremely effective in halting the threats that cause biodiversity loss and ensure species return from the brink of extinction,” explained Professor James Watson, senior author of the latest paper.

“There are also many protected areas that are still in good condition and protect the last strongholds of endangered species worldwide,” Watson continued. “The challenge is to improve the management of those protected areas that are most valuable for nature conservation to ensure they safeguard it."

Rather than simply increasing the amount of land protected, we need to first of all make sure that areas currently under protection are being managed effectively. 


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