Half of Nature’s Most Important Sites Remain Unprotected

Golden-crowned sifaka in Madagascar. The country's unique biodiversity has made it a popular ecotourism destination. (© CI/Photo by Haroldo Castro)

New research led by BirdLife International on the effectiveness of protected areas offers both good and bad news: While protected areas do appear to be working, half of nature’s most important sites remain unprotected.

Around 13 percent of Earth’s land surface and less than 2 percent of its ocean are currently covered by protected areas, ranging from strict nature reserves — where human use is tightly controlled and limited — to protected areas that allow for sustainable use of natural resources.

These protected areas are a cornerstone in our efforts to preserve biodiversity and the ecosystems that sustain us. Species loss is not only diminishing the diversity of life on Earth, but also eroding nature’s ability to support human societies through a range of benefits, including fisheries, plant-derived medicines, climate regulation, clean fresh water, crop pollination and protection from flooding and other disasters.

To stem the global extinction crisis, in 2002 world leaders agreed to significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Alas, in 2010 research showed that the extinction rate showed no sign of slowing.

Here at CI, we work with partner organizations, governments and local stakeholders to help identify the most important areas for biodiversity and understand how these sites also deliver other benefits to people on a local, regional and global scale.

For the BirdLife International study, over 40 scientists from almost 30 institutions — including CI — analyzed a global network of critical sites for biodiversity. We found that protected areas are effective at protecting species; conservation of important sites slows the rate of biodiversity loss. However, only half of the most important sites for nature are under protection — and only one-fifth to one-third of those sites are completely protected.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism. In 2010, world leaders gathered at the Convention for Biological Diversity meeting in Japan to negotiate a global deal to protect nature. At this meeting, participating countries agreed to increase the global coverage of protected areas to 17 percent for land and 10 percent for oceans by 2020.

Thus, it appears the world is committed — at least on paper — to increasing its protected areas. Some biodiversity hotspot nations like Madagascar have been leading the way; the country has used information on key sites for biodiversity to considerably expand its protected area network.

Now it’s time for greater action. As CI and our partners learn more about which sites are most important for biodiversity, we will work to make sure those areas are the ones protected.

Frank W. Larsen is a conservation scientist in CI’s Science and Knowledge division.

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