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Human activities negatively impact wildlife living in protected areas

A new study led by Rice University has discovered that wildlife living inside protected areas are not fully spared by the negative effects of human activities. The negative impact from human activities still exists even when it occurs outside of the protected boundaries.

If the recent “30 by 30” initiative that is supported by over 100 nations proves to be successful, 30 percent of our planet’s land and marine ecosystems will be designated protected areas by 2030.

This partnership was launched in order to safeguard biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

These findings could inform biodiversity policymaking decisions that the 30 by 30 participants may undertake to ensure the maximum level of biodiversity protection in the areas they are responsible for. 

Studying wildlife in protected areas

The experts used the largest long-term camera-trap wildlife survey to date to examine how anthropogenic stressors such as human population density and habitat fragmentation impact 159 mammal species in 16 protected areas across three biogeographical regions. 

Comprised of millions of images captured over many years from 1,000 camera-trap sites, the data set was assembled by a large-scale network of research stations agreeing to implement a consistent data-collection protocol in the context of a partnership between Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Smithsonian Institution

“This data set is just phenomenal – it was a herculean effort unlike anything attempted before,” said study co-author Lydia Beaudrot, an assistant professor of Biosciences at Rice.

What the researchers learned about wildlife in protected areas

The analysis revealed that specialist species, which only occupy specific habitats, thrive when habitat fragmentation is low.

They are usually more prone to be negatively affected by human activities such as hunting or land use than generalist species. Those animals are usually able to thrive in a wider variety of environments. 

Thus, specialists such as the white-bellied pangolin from the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, should shuffle closer to the protected area’s center, since they are more likely to fare better the farther inward they are from the edge. 

By contrast, generalist species like the tayra – a dog-sized mammal from the weasel family that can live both under forest cover and in grasslands or croplands – thrive near the edges of protected areas. This is particularly true if human population there is low.

“Habitats are more varied at the edge of the protected area,” said lead author Asunción Semper-Pascual, a postdoctoral researcher in Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Norwegian University for Life Sciences.

“There is usually this difference between forest cover and open landscape, such as an area used for agriculture, etc. Some generalist species thrive in this kind of diverse setting because it provides access to different resources.”

Future implications for wildlife living in protected areas

Better understanding species-specific responses to various anthropogenic stressors could help set conservation priorities. This information could guide the management of protected areas both locally – by identifying the most vulnerable species in a specific region – and globally – by clarifying how landscape-scale factors affect biodiversity beyond protected perimeters.

“We have to think about the situation holistically. Conservation is going to work best when it’s tackled in specific contexts and in concert with the people who live there so as to create win-win situations for both the people and the wildlife,” Beaudrot said.

“As more protected areas are created, we need to think carefully about the factors both within and outside protected areas that influence biodiversity,” Semper-Pascual concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

More about protected areas 

Protected areas are defined geographical spaces that are designated, regulated, and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives. They have been set up all over the world with the primary goal of conserving biodiversity and providing a place where ecosystems can thrive and evolve.

Protected areas are categorized based on their management objectives under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to IUCN, protected areas are divided into six categories:

Category Ia – Strict Nature Reserve

Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological features. Human visitation, use, and impacts are strictly controlled and limited.

Category Ib – Wilderness Area

Large, unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.

Category II – National Park

Large natural or near-natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible, spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational, and visitor opportunities.

Category III – Natural Monument or Feature 

Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological feature, such as a cave or even a living feature such as an ancient grove.

Category IV – Habitat/Species Management Area

 Areas to protect particular species or habitats, management actions will be needed. This may be associated with wider use of the surroundings.

Category V – Protected Landscape/Seascape

An area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value.

Category VI – Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources

Areas which conserve ecosystems and habitats together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition.

These areas can vary widely in their size, ranging from tiny urban parks or nature reserves to vast national or even transnational parks.

Examples of protected areas include Yellowstone National Park in the United States, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Amazon Rainforest in South America (parts of which are protected), and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, among many others.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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