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More than 90 percent of Earth's protected areas are isolated

A new study from the University of Queensland shows just how isolated the world’s natural areas have become. The experts found that more than 90 percent of all protected areas are disconnected, a revelation that study lead author Michelle Ward describes as “alarming.”

Land use changes for agriculture, mining, and urban development are segregating natural areas, and putting more and more distance between them as time goes on. 

“Protected areas are vital for the protection and survival of plants, animals and ecosystems,” said Ward. “When intact, healthy habitat connects these protected areas, species can migrate, escape danger such as fires, and track their preferred microclimates under rapid climate change.”

“Our research shows 40 percent of the terrestrial planet is intact, but only 9.7 percent of Earth’s terrestrial protected network can be considered structurally connected. This means more than 90 percent of protected areas are isolated, in a sea of human activities.”

The researchers found that in each country or territory, an average of 11 percent of the natural areas like wildlife reserves and national parks can be considered connected.

Under international agreements, the global protected area network must be well-connected and cover 17 percent of land, but this is far from the reality of the situation. According to the UQ study, only nine countries and territories have greater than 17 percent of their land protected and maintain greater than 50 percent connectivity.

“On a positive note, our study provides a common framework – previously absent – for countries and territories to assess the connectivity performance of their existing and future protected areas, with access to information and metrics,” said Ward. 

Professor James Watson, an expert at both UQ and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the research highlights the importance of better locating future protected areas and the need for more emphasis on wide-scale habitat protection and restoration.

“Protected areas increasingly are becoming the only tool conservationists talk about, but most nature lives beyond the protected area boundary,” said Professor Watson.

“We need national and global conservation goals that address whole-of-landscape conservation and targets that halt the destruction of habitat between protected areas. Most of nature has no chance if it’s to survive in just 20 percent of the world.”

“We hope this study provides essential information for conservation and development planning, helping guide future national and global conservation agendas.”

The study is published in the Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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