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Protected areas not enough to save life on Earth

 Sprawl in the desert: urban sprawl spreading out from Las Vegas. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Sprawl in the desert: urban sprawl spreading out from Las Vegas. A new study finds that to save life on Earth, society must confront human population and overconsumption of resources. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Since the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 protected areas have spread across the world. Today, over 100,000 protected areas—national parks, wildlife refuges, game reserves, marine protected areas (MPAs), wildlife sanctuaries, etc.—cover some 7.3 million square miles (19 million kilometers), mostly on land, though conservation areas in the oceans are spreading. While there are a number of reasons behind the establishment of protected areas, one of the most important is the conservation of wildlife for future generations. But now a new open access study in Marine Ecology Progress Series has found that protected areas are not enough to stem the loss of global biodiversity. Even with the volume of protected areas, many scientists say we are in the midst of a mass extinction with extinction levels jumping to 100 to 10,000 times the average rate over the past 500 million years. While protected areas are important, the study argues that society must deal with the underlying problems of human population and overconsumption if we are to have any chance of preserving life on Earth—and leaving a recognizable planet for our children.

“The global network of protected areas is a major achievement, and the pace at which it has been achieved is impressive,” says co-author Dr. Peter F. Sale, Assistant Director of the United Nations University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health, in a press release. “Protected areas are very useful conservation tools, but unfortunately, the steep continuing rate of biodiversity loss signals the need to reassess our heavy reliance on this strategy.”

According to the authors focusing solely on protected areas for biodiversity preservation has a number of flaws. For one thing, society is still far from the minimum goal of conserving 30 percent of marine and terrestrial habitats in order to conserve global biodiversity. Currently 5.8 percent of land is under strict protection, while just 0.08 percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Not all protected areas are created equal. Many allow a number of destructive, unsustainable activities within their boundaries. In addition, most terrestrial protected areas (60 percent) are simply too small—less than 1 square kilometer—to save big or migrating species. Most protected areas are not well-connected in order to allow movement of animal and plant populations, especially in the face of worsening climate change.

Protected areas also do not combat all threats to species. While they help buffer species from habitat loss and overexploitation, they do little to save species from other impacts such as climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

Finally, governments have left most protected areas with too little money for management. According to the study, globally protected areas are underfunded to the tune of $18 billion a year: three times as much as is currently spent on managing protected areas ($6 billion). Poor management opens the door to any number of human impacts including poaching, illegal logging, habitat destruction, illegal fishing, etc. Lack of funding, poor management, and corruption means many protected areas are simply ‘paper parks’, protected by law, but systematically eroded by impacts.

“We’re definitely not saying we shouldn’t protect areas—the problem is that we’re investing all our human capital into those areas,” co-author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa told the BBC. “We’re putting all our eggs in one basket, which is dangerous; but even more dangerous is that there’s a hole in the bottom of the basket.”

The future is also precarious for many of the world’s protected areas. As human population grows—to seven billion this year, and a projected nine billion by 2035—and demand for resources grows, its likely governments will turn more and more to attacking protected areas for resources. Already, this trend is visible in a number of countries. Tanzania is pushing to downsize Selous Game Reserve for uranium mining. Cambodia is handing over 50,000 hectares of Viracehy National Park to rubber plantations and other development projects, essentially shrinking the protected area by 16%. Controversial roads, which can bring a number of adverse impacts, are being planned through protected areas in the Serengeti, in Laos, Vietnam, and in Sumatra. The US has been debating for decades to downgrade the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to allow oil drilling. To date the refuge is safe, but the issue is likely to come up again. As the cost of food rises, there is also likely to be increased conflict between agricultural land and protected areas. One cannot depend on protected areas today surviving in the same form tomorrow.

An unidentified butterfly in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
An unidentified butterfly in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

According to the paper, the real issues that must be dealt with to prevent a mass extinction are human population and overconsumption. Humans now impact over 80 percent of the world’s land and 100 percent of the oceans. Around 40 percent of the Earth’s surface has been ‘strongly affected’ by our consumption.

“The explosive growth in the world’s human population in the last century has led to an increasing demand on the Earth’s ecological resources and a rapid decline in biodiversity. According to recent estimates, about 1.2 Earths would be required to support the different demands of the 5.9 billion people living on the planet in 1999. This ‘excess’ use of the Earth’s resources or ‘overshoot’ is possible because resources can be harvested faster than they can be replaced and because waste can accumulate (e.g. atmospheric CO2),” reads the paper.

Along this line, the authors conclude that if global society continues down the road we are on, we will need 27 planet Earths to sustain our consumption by 2050.

The authors don’t provide detailed solutions in their paper, but write that society must prioritize “alternative solutions targeting
human demand for ecological goods and services,
while ensuring human welfare.”

They add: “In our view, the only scenario to achieve sustainability […] will require a concerted effort to reduce human population growth and consumption and simultaneously increase the Earth’s biocapacity through the transference of technology to increase agricultural and aquacultural productivity.”

In fact, Mora told Aljazeera that in the future the situation could become so dire as to require ‘one child per woman’.

“I’m from Colombia, it blows my mind that some governments in the developing world pay women to have more children,” Mora added.

The authors argue that booming human population isn’t just a problem for the world’s species, but for people alike. Growing human populations is likely to lead to worsening shortages in food and water, declines in education, more competition for jobs, and spreading diseases. Global quality of life looks likely to be a casualty of more and more people.

A black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) in Madagascar. Their population has dropped by 80% in 27 years. This species is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) in Madagascar. Their population has dropped by 80% in 27 years. This species is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Apart from continuous [population] growth being ecologically
untenable, the negative economic effects of population
growth need greater recognition,” they write, in essence warning that the human population is set to overshoot its capacity to care for itself on a finite planet. Unless large-scale changes are made, biodiversity will be just one victim of the process.

“I don’t have a solution—I have struggled for some time trying to think what is the way to get people to realize how important this is—but if we don’t find it soon, the future is a very grim one,” Sale told the BBC. “We’re talking about losing 50 percent of species in the next half century—that’s faster than any previous mass extinction event—and anybody who thinks we can go through a mass extinction and be perfectly fine is just deluding themselves.”

Mora adds in a press release that “biodiversity is humanity’s life-support system, delivering everything from food, to clean water and air, to recreation and tourism, to novel chemicals that drive our advanced civilization.”

CITATION: Camilo Mora and Peter F. Sale. Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need
to move beyond protected areas: a review of the
technical and practical shortcomings of protected
areas on land and sea
. Marine Ecology Progress Series. Vol. 434: 251–266, 2011
doi: 10.3354/meps09214.

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