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Protected areas must be managed to benefit biodiversity

This month, the UN Biodiversity Conference will convene governments from around the world to agree to a new set of goals to protect biological diversity globally. Leaders will potentially set formal goals to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s surface by 2030, and will draw up a framework to transform society’s relationship with biodiversity. 

However, a new study led by the University of Exeter has found that simply protecting areas for the use of wildlife alone does not guarantee benefits to the populations of plants and animals. Instead, protected areas such as nature reserves and parks need to be managed specifically to preserve biodiversity. The researchers argue that targets need to be set for the quality of protected areas, not just the quantity.

“We know that protected areas can prevent habitat loss, especially in terms of stopping deforestation,” said study lead author Dr. Hannah Wauchope. “However, we have much less understanding of how protected areas help wildlife.”

The study focused on waterbird populations in 2,500 protected areas throughout 68 different countries. Waterbirds are well studied and data about their populations has been collected over decades by researchers and citizen scientists. Waterbirds are highly mobile and can move rapidly between areas in response to their suitability and the quality of the conditions.

More than 27,000 waterbird populations were investigated using a method that compared numbers of individuals before and after the establishment of protected areas. In addition, the researchers compared population trends of similar waterbird populations inside and outside currently protected areas. 

“Our study shows that, while many protected areas are working well, many others are failing to have a positive effect,” said Dr. Wauchope. “Rather than focussing solely on the total global area protected, we need more focus on ensuring areas are well-managed to benefit biodiversity.”

“We are not saying protected areas don’t work,” added Dr. Wauchope. “The key point is that their impacts vary hugely, and the biggest thing this depends on is whether they are managed with species in mind – we can’t just expect protected areas to work without appropriate management. It also appears that larger protected areas tend to be better than smaller ones.”

The findings, published today in the prestigious journal Nature, show that protected areas, such as national parks, have a “mixed impact” on wildlife, depending on whether or not they are managed specifically to encourage and preserve biodiversity. This study, which is the largest ever global assessment of the effects of protected areas on biodiversity, provides a much more accurate and detailed picture of the benefits of protected areas than previous studies. 

The research team included scientists from Wetlands International and the Universities of Cambridge, Bangor, Queensland, Copenhagen, and Cornell, and the research relied on the efforts of many thousands of volunteers across the world to collect the data on waterbird population numbers. Data on waterbirds in North America came from the National Audubon Society, and the collection of data by volunteers was organized by the Christmas Bird Count (National Audubon Society) and the International Waterbird Census (Wetlands International).

“To slow biodiversity loss, we need a much better understanding of which conservation approaches work, and which don’t,” said Professor Julia Jones. “This analysis gives really useful indications of how conservation can be improved to deliver better outcomes for species.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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