Protected areas (PAs) are often described as a key tool in conservation to ensure species survival, providing safe spots where they can persist while threats are present or imminent in other areas of their range. Broad in their definition and categories, PAs may range from a strictly protected national park to areas where resource use is incentivized, if considered sustainable. But are they effectively achieving their goals? This was the theme of a ZSL symposium on “Protected areas – are they safeguarding biodiversity?” I attended earlier this month. 22 speakers reported recent findings and ongoing work on PAs, from their planning, design and monitoring to connectivity, functionality and financing. And the answer seems to be “Yes!”… but we still need to better understand under which conditions, suggesting a lot of unrealized potential.
How to measure effectiveness, monitor and make decisions with little available data was also under discussion. Given the surprisingly little information available on population trends, economic costs of PAs and opportunity costs to local communities, particularly for comparison at global levels, more data should be collected but scientists must also be creative with what is available. For example, Ben Collen (ZSL) described the application of simulation models to compare alternative management strategies (expansion of PAs and/or effective management), allowing policy-makers to compare expected results and make decisions accordingly (read study here: Nicholson et al. 2012). Other promising approaches described in the symposium include the use of camera trapping, remote sensing and citizen data. Matching PAs with appropriate control sites to adequately measure effectiveness was also frequently described as rarely conducted.
With most of the speakers mentioning the Aichi biodiversity target 11, which sets the new targets for terrestrial and marine protected areas by 2020, its scientific and political meanings were often discussed, as well as its achievability within the expected timeframe. Despite some scepticism, we were reminded that setting specific goals seems to improve implementation and is useful for mobilizing resources. This emphasizes the need for intervention, even if under less than perfect conditions, before it is too late to act. Nigel Dudley (Equilibrium Research) also called for a code of practice for conservation research and implementation to improve learning, data sharing and capacity building, given the mismatch and little information interchange between scientists, managers and policy-makers.
The need to predict changes and plan for future scenarios cannot be emphasized enough. Eric Sanderson (WCS) gave a thought-provoking talk about modifying the distribution of human influence to safeguard biodiversity. Eric argued for the need to evaluate lifestyle choices, consider how these trade-off with biodiversity conservation, and plan cities and human development with those in mind. Linda Krueger (WCS) also mentioned that PAs must be perceived differently, not as barriers but as a core strategy for development, linked to other societal goals. Under current scenarios of human population growth, development and change, the true challenges may indeed lay outside PAs.
Overall, I found it a very interesting symposium but cannot fail to notice that most findings focused only on terrestrial case-studies. Moreover, although John Robinson (WCS) started the symposium by stating that PAs are not in a social vacuum and that the socioeconomic contexts limit what can be achieved and how, the symposium did not cover enough the local communities perspective. The need to measure effectiveness also in terms of social outcomes, as suggested by Neil Burgess (WWF-UK), is essential. Let’s learn from our own mistakes and promote representativeness and connectivity also in our own broader approaches to conservation!