There’s no question about it: parks and protected areas are the absolute cornerstone of our efforts to protect nature. In the long term, we can’t save wildlife and ecosystems without them.
But people want to use parks too, and in rapidly growing numbers. Around the world, parks are destinations for recreational activities like hiking, bird-watching and camping, as well as noisier affairs such as mountain-biking, snowmobiling and four-wheel-driving.
Where do we draw the line?
Let’s start by looking at the roads that take us into and through parks. They can be a double-edged sword.
Roads are needed to allow tourists to access parks, but we have to be very careful where and how we build them.
In regions where law enforcement is weak, roads can rip apart a forest — sharply increasing illegal activities such as poaching, deforestation and mining.
According to my (Bill’s) research, new roads – often driven by foreign mining or timber investors from nations such as China – could damage up to a third of all the protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Nouabale Ndoke Park in the Congo Basin, poaching wasn’t a big problem until a new road was built along the edge of the park.
Suddenly the fatal rak-rak-rak of AK-47 rifles – often aimed at elephants by ivory poachers – was being heard all too often.
Roads are one thing, but what about a simple bike trail or walking track? They let in people too. But they are harmless, right?
Not always. A 2010 Canadian study found that mountain biking causes a range of environmental impacts, including tyres chewing up the soil, causing compaction and erosion. This is a significant problem for fragile alpine vegetation in mountainous areas where many bikers like to explore.
Rapidly moving cyclists can also scare wildlife. In North America and Europe, many wild species, such as bears, wolves, caribou and bobcats, have been shown to flee or avoid areas frequented by hikers or bikers.
In Indonesia, even trails used by ecotourists and birdwatchers scared away some sensitive wildlife species or caused them to shift to being active only at night.
Every type of human activity – be it hiking or biking or horse riding — has its own signature impact on nature. We simply don’t know the overall effect of human recreation on parks and protected areas globally.
However, a study earlier this year found that roughly one-third of all terrestrial protected areas worldwide – a staggering 6 million square kilometres, an area bigger than Kenya – is already under “intense” human pressure.
Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places. And on top of that are the impacts – probably lesser but still unquantified – of more benign human activities aimed at enjoying nature.
Is the answer to stop people from visiting parks?
Not really. Visitors in many parts of the world help to fund the operation of national parks, and provide vital income for local people.
What’s more, locking people out of land is a very unpopular thing to do. Governments that block people from accessing nature reserves often face an electoral backlash.
If we accept that people must be able to use parks, what’s the best way to limit their impacts on ecosystems and wildlife? One way is to encourage them to stay on designated trails and tourist routes.
A recent study (using geotagged data from photos) showed that half of all photos by park visitors were taken in less than 1% of each park.
In other words, most visitors use only a small, highly trafficked part of each park. That’s good news for nature.
If people tend to limit their activities to the vicinity of pretty waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and designated hiking areas, that leaves much of the park available for sensitive animals and ecosystems.
There are many opportunities for practical science and management. We want to help design protected areas in a way that lets people enjoy them – but which also focuses their activities in particular areas while retaining large intact areas where wildlife can roam free with little human disturbance.
And while we’re designing our parks, we want to use every opportunity, and every visit, to educate and empower tourists. We need people using parks to understand, appreciate, and stand up for nature, rather than thinking of parks as simply playgrounds.
Earlier this month, New Zealand’s Supreme Court rejected a proposed land swap that would have flooded conservation land for the construction of the country’s largest irrigation dam.
The court was considering whether the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s investment arm could build a dam on 22 hectares of the protected Ruahine Forest Park in exchange for 170 hectares of private farm land. The proposed dam is part of the $900 million Ruataniwha water storage and irrigation scheme.
The New Zealand government’s response to the ruling was to consider a law change to make land swaps easier. Such a move flies in the face of good governance.
The Supreme Court ruling has significant implications for the Ruataniwha dam. In addition, it asserts the importance of permanent protection of high-value conservation land.
The ecological value of the Ruahine Forest Park land was never in question. The conservation land includes indigenous forest, a unique braided river and wetlands that would have been destroyed.
The area is home to a dozen plants and animals that are classified as threatened or at risk. The developer’s ecological assessment acknowledged the destruction of ecologically significant land and water bodies. However, it argued that mitigation and offsetting would ensure that any effects of habitat loss were at an acceptable level.
New Zealand’s environmental legislation states that adverse effects are to be avoided, remedied or mitigated. However, no priority is given to avoiding adverse effects. Government guidance on offsetting does not require outcomes with no net loss.
In Pathways to prosperity, policy analyst Marie Brown argues that offsetting is not always appropriate when the affected biodiversity is vulnerable and irreplaceable.
Recent public concern about declining water quality has provided significant momentum to address pollution and over-allocation to irrigation. Similarly, awareness of New Zealand’s loss of indigenous biodiversity is building.
These issues were highlighted in this year’s OECD Environmental Performance Review and a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the parlous state of New Zealand’s native birds.
Both issues damage New Zealand’s 100% Pure branding and pose significant risks to tourism and the export food sector. Indigenous ecosystems are a huge draw card to surging numbers of international tourists.
Powerful economic arguments have been put forward by business actors, both internationally and in New Zealand. For example, Pure Advantage supports protection of ecosystems and landscapes. Yet, governance mechanisms are limited.
Since 2009, environmental protection and conservation have increasingly become major battle lines as the National government doggedly pursues its business growth agenda. This favours short-term economic growth over environmental protection.
A key principle behind the Supreme Court decision is that protected conservation land cannot be traded off. It follows a High Court case in which environmental organisations argued unsuccessfully that the transfer of land was unlawful.
However, in August 2016, the Court of Appeal ruled against the Director-General of Conservation’s decision to allow the land transfer. It had been supported on the grounds that there would be a net gain to the conservation estate. The court’s ruling said that the intrinsic values of the protected land had been disregarded.
The Supreme Court has reinforced the importance of the permanent protection status recognised by the Court of Appeal.
In response to the court’s decisions, the government argued that land swaps of protected areas should be allowed. It may seek to amend legislation to facilitate such exchanges.
The Supreme Court made reference to section 2 of the Conservation Act 1987. It defines conservation as “the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations”.
Section 6 of the act states that the Department of Conservation should “promote the benefits to present and future generations of the conservation of natural and historic resources”. As such, the legislation and the department contribute to what is known as “anticipatory governance”.
Anticipatory governance is fundamental to good governance, as Jonathan Boston argues in his recent publication Safeguarding the future: governing in an uncertain world.
It requires protecting long-term public interests. Conservation of our unique ecosystems and landscapes protects their intrinsic values and the services they provide. These include tourism benefits and basic needs such as water, soil and the materials that sustain human life.
The department has correctly recognised that conservation promotes prosperity. However, long-term prosperity is quite different from the short-term exploitation associated with the government’s business growth agenda.
This promotes exploitation in the form of mining on conservation land and increased infrastructure for tourism and other industries, such as the proposed Ruataniwha dam.
Amending the Conservation Act to allow land swaps involves a significant discounting of the future in favour of present day citizens. This is disingenuous and an affront to constitutional democracy. It would weaken one of New Zealand’s few anticipatory governance mechanisms at a time when they are needed more than ever.
Protected areas, like national parks and wildlife refuges, are the cornerstones of global conservation efforts. So making sure they achieve their mission is fundamental to our goal of halting biodiversity declines.
Unfortunately, how well protected areas maintain their biodiversity remains poorly understood. While there is clear evidence that protected areas, such as Egmont National Park in New Zealand, can prevent deforestation, there is much less evidence of how well they protect our wildlife.
Our work, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined trends for more than 500 species of birds and mammals in protected areas in 72 countries. The good news is that most animals are doing well, more so for birds than mammals. But that’s no reason to become complacent.
On the whole, birds are doing better than mammals, and species in Europe better than those in Africa. Species doing well include hippopotamus, northern hairy-nose wombats and waterfowl across Europe such as flamingoes in the Camargue region of France.
Those declining in protected areas include bushbuck in Selous National Park and other antelope like kob. Common birds such as common teal and European skylark are not immune, nor are a number of shorebirds globally. Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys are declining in Na Hang National Park in Vietnam, Tucuman parrots in Argentina, and the delightful mallee emu-wren declined to precipitously low levels in Ngarkat National Park, before being wiped out in South Australia in a single fire.
As a result of this monitoring data, many of the declining populations we studied have now been targeted for management – for instance, wetland birds across Europe. Others, like shorebirds, are faced with an intimidating cocktail of hard-to-manage international threats.
Unexpectedly, we also found the biggest animals were doing the best. Species like giraffes and zebras have more positive populations than smaller species like jackals.
This is surprising since larger animals tend to be slow to grow, mature and reproduce. As a result they are often slow to recover from population suppression.
Large animals often act as flagships for particular ecosystems. For instance, orang-utans are a flagship for Indonesia’s rainforests. The implication of our research is that focusing on these species is not enough to make sure all species will survive.
While more than half of protected areas we studied are getting better, there remain many protected areas where declines are still occurring worldwide. Despite this, conditions that deliver success for wildlife in protected areas are poorly understood. So, we investigated which parks were doing best and why.
Wildlife in protected areas is going better in wealthier, more developed countries (Europe) compared to developing countries (like in West Africa). It is hard to tell, though, if the difference is due to more resources available in developed countries, or increasing threats in developing nations.
National-scale socioeconomic conditions were also far more important in influencing how well parks protect wildlife than factors such as size, design or type. This shows it’s important to tailor management to social and political conditions. Over long timescales, the design of protected areas is likely to remain important, but our results show the importance of managing parks for more immediate threats.
Our results suggest that active management – like managing invasive predators, preventing poaching and reducing conflict between people and wildlife – helps animals with low reproductive rates and mitigates the greater threat faced by larger species of birds and mammals due to their slow reproductive rates. Parks still need to be well-managed, though, and threats can’t become too severe – as in the recent poaching crisis.
The tools to ensure good outcomes from protected areas exist — but the will and capacity to implement them must be strengthened if we expect them to act as refuges for all species forever.
This week at the World Conservation Congress, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and NGOs will vote on policies to halt biodiversity declines by 2020. To date, conservationists have focused on increasing the size of the global protected area estate, but simply establishing more protected areas is not enough.
Instead, we need a radical change in commitment. To do this we need to address shortfalls in management. Ensuring both sufficient and secure finances for management and appropriate and equitable governance is just the beginning. Otherwise we’ll keep creating more parks, but wildlife will keep declining.
New Caledonia has created the world’s largest protected area – the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. The link below is to an article that reports on the park.
The link below is to an article reporting on the largest protected wetland in the world, Bolivia’s Llanos de Moxos.
The link below is to an article reporting on new marine parks and a national park recently announced for Western Australia, that will help protect Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley.
Not seen since 1876, the Kandyan Dwarf Toad has been found once more in a stream in Sri Lanka. Thankfully the discovery took place in a protected area, the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, so the toad should be free from most threats. Even so, the species is still considered extremely rare.
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The link below is to an article on a massive new marine park established in the Coral Sea. This marine park is just one of a number of new protected areas that now give Australia the most comprehensive network of marine reserves in the world.
Massive Area of Rainforest to Be Protected
The link below is to an article reporting on how Guyana is working to protect 40 million acres of rainforest, which will protect some 80% of the country’s rainforest.
For more, visit: