02 July 2014 | Article

A team of scientists working in partnership with IUCN has revealed that intergovernmental commitments to expand global protected areas could still leave many species in danger of disappearing from our planet.

A strategy to expand protected areas from 13% to 17% of the earth’s land surface by 2020 was put in place as part of the 20 Aichi Targets in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) strategic plan in Nagoya, Japan in 2010.

However, the ‘gap analysis’ study, which will be presented as part of the ‘Reaching Conservation Goals’ stream at the World Parks Congress 2014 taking place 12-19 November in Sydney, Australia, found that one-sixth of 4,118 threatened vertebrates do not occur in any protected areas.

Moreover, reaching the 17% target by establishing protected areas in places of lowest agricultural potential would only increase adequate representation of threatened vertebrates by 6%. The study, led by Dr Oscar Venter of James Cook University, Australia, explained that a far more cost-effective and logical solution would be to position new protected areas strategically. The increase in threatened species representation could be multiplied five-fold by protecting areas with only one-and-a-half times more agricultural potential.

“The Aichi targets set forth a bold and ambitious vision for conservation action this decade. While many of the targets seem inherently synergistic, like Target 11 to expand protected areas and Target 12 to protect threatened species, our study shows this may not be the case,” said Dr Venter.

“We discover that the locations that are cheap to protect, and therefore most likely to receive protected area expansion, contribute little to the conservation of threatened vertebrates. The key to safeguarding the world’s most at-risk fauna and flora is to link threatened species coverage to protected area expansion, which would combine two of the commitments made by the parties to the CBD,” he added.

‘Great concern’

The study’s finding causes great concern to Dr Penny Langhammer of Arizona State University. “We can meet the 17% target and fail to ensure the persistence of biodiversity unless protected area expansion proceeds in a highly strategic manner,” said Langhammer, who is co-chair for the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas and Species Survival Commission Joint Task Force Biodiversity and Protected Areas.

“This study shows that it is both necessary and possible to safeguard sites of particular importance for threatened species,” she added.

Her co-chair, Dr Stephen Woodley, added “Target 11 of the Convention of Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets is the most comprehensive global target the world has ever had for protected areas. The Aichi Targets are meant to halt global biodiversity loss by 2020 and protected areas are the fundamental tools to conserve species. As the world moves toward 2020, it is clear that the evolving protected system must include areas that conserve the world’s endangered species.”

The study builds on an initial global gap analysis of the coverage of threatened species, conducted for the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2003, which showed that at least a fifth of threatened species were unrepresented within protected areas. The work was only possible because for 50 years, IUCN and its Species Survival Commission and Red List Partnership have maintained assessments of species extinction risk through the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and similarly IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas and UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre maintain assessments of the world’s 200,000 protected areas.

Help future generations

Professor James Watson, of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Co-Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Climate Change Specialist Group, and one of the study’s authors, believes that implementing the paper’s recommendations could help reduce the impacts of climate change for future generations.

“By protecting both large intact land and sea areas and threatened species, we can greatly increase the chances of maintaining Earth’s biological diversity for future generations, especially when we think about threats such as climate change,” said Professor Watson, who is also Director of Climate Change at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“When these goals are combined, countries are much more likely to create new parks in biologically threatened areas that are hopefully more resilient to climate change, which will lead to long-term dividends for global conservation.” Fellow author Dr Carlo Rondinini is also of the opinion that this agreement could have very positive but said it is crucial that all the scientific research is translated into positive practices.

‘Not enough’

“The commitment of the world’s governments to expand the global protected area network opens an unprecedented opportunity to boost conservation action, provided that the new sites fill the gaps identified so far,” said Rondinini, who works in the Global Mammal Assessment team at Sapienza University in Rome, an IUCN Red List Partner.

“The giant leaps we are taking in mapping current species distributions and forecasting their future change mean that we know how to expand the protected area network in an efficient, effective and robust way. But this is not enough – scientific results will have to be translated into good practice of protected area establishment and management to have a positive impact on life on Earth,” he added.

Dr Stuart Butchart, another key contributor to the study, was also keen to stress the importance of synergising the campaigns to increase the protected area coverage and save the species. “This paper demonstrates that there are considerable synergies between the different Aichi Targets, and that targeting protected area expansion to conserve threatened species is much more efficient than tackling these two issues separately,” said Butchart, who is Head of Science at BirdLife International, another IUCN Red List Partner.

“BirdLife’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) – 12,000 sites identified worldwide – provide a mechanism to achieve this, as they are sites critical for the conservation of the world’s birds and for other wildlife groups more generally. IUCN is now building on the IBA concept to extend it to other biodiversity, and a draft standard for Key Biodiversity Areas is to be released later in 2014.”

Dr Thomas Brooks, IUCN’s Head of Science and Knowledge, concluded by emphasising the importance of the World Parks Congress in launching such scientific work into the arenas of policy and practice. “The Sydney World Parks Congress will be a springboard for gap analyses, for the new Key Biodiversity Area standard, and for novel assessments of protected area management effectiveness and biodiversity outcomes,” he said.

“It will also provide a platform for governmental and other commitments to strengthen current protected areas and establish new ones, so that our planet’s biodiversity can persist.”