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Protected areas receive 8 billion visits a year, but still underfunded

Cobalt-winged parakeets at a clay lick in Yasuni National Park, which the Ecuadorian government is increasingly opening up to oil drilling. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Cobalt-winged parakeets at a clay lick in Yasuni National Park, which the Ecuadorian government is increasingly opening up to oil drilling. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

The world loves its protected areas, according to a new study in the open access PLOS Biology. U.S. and UK researchers estimated that the world’s protected areas received eight billion visits every year. That means on average every person visits 1.1 protected areas a year when looking at the global estimated population of around 7.2 billion today. Moreover, the research found that the world’s 140,000 protected areas likely brought in at least $600 billion to national economies.

“It’s fantastic that people visit protected areas so often, and are getting so much from experiencing wild nature—it’s clearly important to people and we should celebrate that,” said lead authorAndrew Balmford with Cambridge University.

Even with these impressive numbers, the researchers caution that they are likely underestimates. To come up with their estimations, the researchers used visitor data from 550 protected areas around the world and then extrapolated that to the world’s total 140,000 parks and nature reserves, basing visitor numbers on each one’s size, remoteness, and national economy.

Balmford called the model “limited,” but “the best there is at the moment.” The team also excluded marine protected areas, Antarctica, very small reserves, and Category I Protected Areas, which are generally off limits to most types of tourism.

The scientists calculated that visits were highest in North America—approximately three billion visits a year—and lowest in Africa—around 100,000. All told, visit in North America and Europe accounted for about 80 percent of total visits.

Panther chameleon in Ankarana Reserve in Madagascar. Ecotourism is a big economic boost for the poor, island country. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Panther chameleon in Ankarana Reserve in Madagascar. Ecotourism is a big economic boost for the poor, island country. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The researchers say their findings prove that governments are spending far less on protected areas than they should.

“Our US$600 billion figure for the annual value of protected area tourism is likely to be an underestimate—yet it dwarfs the less than US$10 billion spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas,” said co-author Robin Naidoo with the World Wildlife Fund. “Through previous research, we know that the existing reserve network probably needs three to four times what is current being spent on it.”

Indeed, recent research found that 50-80 percent of the world’s protected areas (including marine protected areas) were underfunded or poorly managed.

Of course, the world’s protected areas also provide much more than just tourism money. They also conserve the world’s embattled biodiversity, store tremendous amounts of carbon, safeguard freshwater sources, and, according to research, provide unquestionable psychiatric, spiritual, and cultural benefits.

“Yet many [protected areas] are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas,” noted Balmford.

In recent years, many protected areas have also been abolished, downsized, or downgraded, often in an effort to exploit them for natural resources, such as logging, mining, agriculture, or oil and gas. Some countries have even begun to take a hostile view towards protected areas. For example, Australia’s government has pledged to create no new national parks and attempted—though failed—to strip an area from a UNESCO World Heritage Site for logging. Meanwhile, the U.S. House has passed legislation that would hamper a President’s ability to establish new protected areas, though it’s unlikely Obama would sign.

“Stopping the unfolding extinction crisis is not unaffordable,” said Balmford. “Three months of Apple profits could go a long way to securing the future of nature. Humanity doesn’t need electronic communication to survive. But we do need the rest of the planet.”

Apple made $18 billion in the last quarter of 2014, the biggest ever by a public company.

Aerial view of Imbak Canyon Conservation Area in Malaysian Borneo. Malaysia has the world's highest rate of forest destruction. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Aerial view of Imbak Canyon Conservation Area in Malaysian Borneo. Malaysia had the world’s highest rate of forest destruction between 2000-2012. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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