Nature parks, otherwise known as protected areas, have emerged as invaluable protectors of nature in the battle to save biodiversity. Yet, many of these havens and their inhabitants face constant threats from humanity’s encroachment, often due to mounting pressure from resource extraction, agricultural expansion, and population growth.
Recent research from Princeton University brings forth an important revelation – strengthening the existing nature parks, be it under legal or local community jurisdiction, is equally important for the preservation of biodiversity as the creation of new protected areas.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, delves into the status of approximately 5,000 species. Alarmingly, around 70% of these species either have zero representation in protected areas, reside in parks that have experienced a downgrade, downsizing, or removal from protection, or face an increased risk of extinction due to prospective land-use changes.
However, not all is lost. The researchers highlight a compelling solution – enhancing the protection of existing parks and extending the existing network of parks across a mere 1% of the earth’s land area. This step alone could safeguard the vital habitats of 1,191 animal species teetering on the brink of extinction.
“Parks save species. But they can do so only if the parks themselves are protected against harmful activities,” emphasized Professor David Wilcove. “Our study demonstrates just how important it is to protect the places that protect species.”
The team’s findings align with a growing global recognition of the urgency to safeguard the Earth’s species diversity through the creation of new protected zones. This sentiment was echoed at the United Nations biodiversity conference COP15 in December 2022, where countries pledged to earmark 30% of the world’s land and seas as protected areas.
Beyond this commitment, the Princeton study highlights an often-overlooked aspect of wildlife conservation, namely, ensuring that existing protected areas continue to serve as safe sanctuaries for biodiversity.
Yiwen Zeng, lead author of the study, commented, “Our study pinpoints where new parks can be created, but also where to restore and reinforce existing parks in order to boost wildlife conservation.”
“Many global discussions on conservation rightfully focus on the need to create new protected areas, but our study also shows the importance of ensuring that protected areas remain effective at keeping out harmful human activity,” said Zeng, who is currently a research assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.
This aspect is crucial because protected areas are not impervious to human activities that could undermine their conservation value, especially in the absence of adequate enforcement or political support for wildlife conservation.
The loss of protection or downgrading of parks, usually resulting from government decisions, reduces the degree or extent of protection, leaving them vulnerable to infrastructure expansion, mining, and other activities that could lead to habitat loss or degradation.
To illustrate, the research pointed out that as of 2021, more than 278 million hectares of parks have undergone such types of degradations. The Megophrys damrei, a critically endangered frog exclusive to Cambodia, continues to suffer habitat degradation within and around the national park boundaries, despite the area’s protected status.
Moreover, expanding the network of protected areas could be a lifeline for species whose habitats currently lack sufficient protection. As the study suggests, shielding an additional 330 square kilometers of natural landscapes within Indonesia could secure the suitable habitats of 53 species currently deprived of protected area coverage and limited habitat areas.
Rebecca Senior, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and currently an assistant professor of ecology at Durham University in the UK, warns of the dangers of complacency. “There are many wonderful examples in conservation of people fighting to protect species, but there is always a risk that when you take your eye off the ball, pressure builds and hard-won protection is lost,” she cautioned.
Senior further emphasized the need for practical, sustained conservation efforts. “Designating parks on paper is not enough; they need to be in the right places, with the right management, and they need to last.”
This study brings into sharp focus the need to view conservation as a two-pronged effort: creating new protected areas and ensuring the continued integrity of existing ones. As the research has demonstrated, these two strategies are not mutually exclusive but complementary, and both are essential to curbing the loss of biodiversity.
In a world increasingly threatened by human activity and climate change, the research provides a compelling case for not just the creation, but also the strengthening, of protected areas. The study underscores the essential role these areas play in biodiversity conservation and offers a roadmap to achieving better outcomes for species protection.
If heeded, their findings might just be the key to ensuring that parks continue to serve as refuges for thousands of species at risk, ultimately safeguarding our planet’s rich tapestry of life for generations to come.
Protected areas are regions of land or water specifically managed for the conservation of biodiversity and natural or cultural resources. These areas can take many forms, including national parks, wildlife reserves, marine protected areas, and community-managed conservation areas, among others.
The importance of nature parks to Earth’s biodiversity is immense, as they provide a refuge for a wide variety of species, including many that are threatened or endangered.
Protected areas are crucial for preserving habitats that species need to survive. They can shield ecosystems from destructive human activities, like deforestation, mining, and overfishing, which degrade habitats and make them uninhabitable for many species.
Protected areas are often established to preserve species that are endangered or have special significance. They provide a safe haven where these species can live without threats from hunting or habitat destruction.
By preserving a wide array of species, protected areas also safeguard genetic diversity. This diversity is crucial for the health and resilience of ecosystems and can provide genetic materials for future scientific discovery and potential use in medicine, agriculture, and other fields.
Protected areas, especially those that contain forests, mangroves, or peatlands, can also help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Additionally, by preserving ecosystem integrity, these areas can help species adapt to changing climate conditions.
Many protected areas also hold significant cultural value. They can protect lands that are sacred or important to Indigenous peoples and local communities, maintaining cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.
Nature parks often support local economies by attracting tourism. They provide opportunities for recreation, education, and nature appreciation, contributing to the overall quality of human life.
Despite their importance, protected areas face numerous challenges. Encroachment from human activities, insufficient funding for proper management, and climate change can all degrade these spaces and diminish their ability to preserve biodiversity. It’s vital that these areas are not just designated, but also effectively managed and enforced, to ensure they can continue to fulfill their crucial role in biodiversity conservation.