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Protected areas slow down biodiversity loss, but they can't reverse it

Currently, biodiversity is dwindling at an alarming pace all over the world. One key method for countering this worrisome trend is protecting various areas around the globe, in a hope that this will suffice to save what is left. 

However, while such protected areas have clearly contributed to slowing biodiversity loss overall, it is still unclear how well they work for different species. 

To answer this question, a team of researchers led by the University of Helsinki has recently examined changes in the occurrence of hundreds of species both within and outside of protected areas. 

Slowing the rate of decline

The analysis revealed mixed effects, suggesting that protected areas do not fully meet the expectations set for them. 

Thus, rather than reversing biodiversity loss trends, current protected areas will – at best – help decelerate the rate of species decline, offering more time to act on the underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

Some species benefit more than others

“Our results show that only a small proportion of species explicitly benefit from protection, but this varied by group,” explained senior author Marjo Saastamoinen, an associate professor of Life Sciences at Helsinki.

“Birds show the highest positive response to protection, one out of five species, and plants show warm-dwelling species benefiting more. Protected areas mostly help by slowing down the decline of species occurrences.” 

“Importantly though, larger protected areas and longer protection times enhanced positive effects. The benefits were boosted for many more species, adding evidence for the genuine effects of protection.”

Focus of the study 

To assess how effective protected areas are, the experts compared how species were faring within natures reserves to how they were doing in similar yet unprotected areas. 

The results showed that many species exhibited similar trends within protected and unprotected regions. Thus, species decline seems to be far from being halted by protecting specific areas. 

What the researchers learned 

The findings suggest that the rate of species decline is slowed down with protection rather than stopped or reversed. 

Among the 638 species examined, the scientists discovered that one in five bird species, one in eight mammal species, and only one in twenty plant or phytoplankton species benefit from protection.

“Our findings should not discourage us from establishing protected areas,” said lead author Andrea Santangeli, an expert in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Helsinki. 

“Quite the contrary, they show that protected areas will buy us some time to counter rapid species loss. By protecting an area, we will slow the local loss of many species – but, at the same time, we cannot stop species loss by simply setting aside some small pieces of land here and there and expect miracles to happen.”

Study implications 

“What we need to do is to make the overall landscape more suitable for the species. Protected areas can serve as lifeboats, but in the longer run, these lifeboats will still need a safe landing site.”

Therefore, current area-based protection is insufficient for acting as a “silver bullet” for countering species loss. 

An efficient approach would be to manage already existing protected areas better and increase their connectedness with each other, while making unprotected regions a better place for more species. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Effectiveness of protected areas

Protected areas (PAs), such as national parks, wildlife reserves, and marine protected areas, play a critical role in conservation efforts. Their effectiveness can be evaluated on various fronts:

Biodiversity conservation

Many PAs have been successful in safeguarding critical habitats and helping in the recovery of endangered species. For instance, the establishment of mountain gorilla sanctuaries in Africa has played a role in the species’ slow but steady population increase.

Ecosystem services

PAs can help ensure that ecosystems continue to provide vital services, such as clean water, pollination of crops, and carbon sequestration.

Cultural and recreational values

Protected areas offer places for recreation, spiritual rejuvenation, and cultural activities, benefiting both local communities and tourists.

Economic benefits

Through ecotourism, many PAs contribute significantly to local and national economies.

Research and education

Protected areas serve as living laboratories where scientists can study ecosystems in relatively undisturbed conditions.

Influential factors

While protected areas have been effective in many contexts, their success depends on several factors, including adequate resources, appropriate management strategies, and the engagement of local communities.

Size and connectivity 

Small, isolated PAs might not be sufficient to support viable populations of large or wide-ranging species. Corridors or networks of PAs can be more effective than standalone ones.

Community involvement 

If local communities are involved in the management and benefits of PAs, they’re more likely to be supportive and help ensure the PAs’ long-term success.

External pressures

Protected areas are often threatened by external pressures like pollution, climate change, and invasive species, which might originate outside their boundaries.

Illegal activities

Furthermore, human activities such as poaching and illegal logging can undermine the goals of a protected area. 

Management and funding

Without adequate resources and skilled personnel, PAs may exist only on paper. These established protected areas, where current protection activities are insufficient to halt degradation, are known as “paper parks.”

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