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National parks: Serving humanity’s well-being as much as nature’s

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran. Completed in 1901. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of George D. Pratt / Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new study finds that living near a protected area in the developing world decreases poverty and increases childhood health.
  • Parks with tourism or multi-use were the best at delivering benefits to local populations.
  • There is an untold part of this story: conflict with wildlife was not incorporated into the study.

This post is part of Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild, a monthly column by Jeremy Hance, one of Mongabay’s original staff writers.


Imagine, for a moment, a world without national parks. Yellowstone National Park is just a combo of cattle ranchers and gated communities for rich people who like the empty views. The wild American bison is extinct and no wolves wander anywhere near the lower 48. Manú National Park, in the Peruvian Amazon, was logged out decades ago — and the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area are all dead. The migration across the Serengeti was slowly crushed by roads, trains, sprawl, agriculture and hunting; by the 1980s just a few wildebeest limped through churned-up plains. The Serengeti’s last lion died before the new millennium. Jim Corbett National Park in India is today just fields of marginal farming: the tigers that were once there are long gone — in fact, tigers in this counterfactual universe went totally extinct in the 1990s from the wild. But, hey, they still perform in circuses!

Without national parks, and by extension all varieties of protected areas, our planet would be even hotter than it is and we would have lost thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of species still found on our Earth today. Protected areas remain our best tool against mass extinction and ecological degradation. They are also ridiculously beloved: a study in 2015 found that natural protected areas received 8 billion visits a year — greater than the total population of humans on Earth. The researchers estimate this could generate $600 billion dollars a year (even though globally nations only invest $10 billion a year into park management, which is pretty much woefully inadequate). According to the Protected Planet Report in 2018, 14.9 percent of global lands are protected, covering 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles) — nearly twice the size of China.

An elephant in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Photo by: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Yet what about the flip side of this coin? How do these protected areas economically impact those who live next to them, especially in developing and poorer countries? If thinking about it simply, one would likely believe protected areas drag down local economies — after all, the very purpose of such parks is to set aside large areas of land, essentially rendering them inaccessible in terms of direct economic exploitation.

But it turns out the reverse is true: a new study in Science Advances, the largest and broadest of its kind, has found that protected areas provide both economic and health benefits to their adjacent populations.

Benefits of living next door

The study found that not only did protected areas provide economic benefits to local communities, but children living near protected areas were healthier as well. However, there was one caveat: protected areas either needed to have tourism or be designated as multiple-use protected areas, which means they allow some regulated access to natural resources inside the park.

For those living near a nature reserve with tourism, wealth scores rose by nearly 17 percent and the likelihood of poverty plunged by 16 percent compared to rural households living nowhere near a park. Living near a park allowing multiple-use access and tourism translated into wealth scores jumping by 20 percent and the likelihood of poverty cut by 25 percent.

Perhaps more surprisingly, these parks also impacted the health of children under 5 living nearby. Parks with tourism and multiple-use access increased height-for-age growth scores by almost 10 percent and reduced the likelihood of stunting due to poor nutrition by 13 percent.

Such results aren’t super surprising if one has tracked this kind of research in the past: a study in 2011 had similar findings looking at parks in Thailand and Costa Rica.

However, the new study has one thing past research doesn’t: it’s freaking huge. The researchers looked at a stunning 600-plus protected areas across 34 countries, analyzing data on 60,000 households and 87,000 children.

A birdwatching guide in West Papua, Indonesia. Tourism can bring money into local communities and give an incentive to conservation. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

“This is much a much larger and more widespread set of data than has been used in the past to address this topic, and furthermore, our data were collected using the same methodology,” says Robin Naidoo, the lead author of the paper and a senior conservation scientist with WWF.

He added that the study took several years of work because it required “[integrating] environmental and social data in a rigorous way.”

Moreover, the study also found that even when protected areas didn’t have tourism or multiple–use access, they still didn’t harm local populations financially.

“There was also no evidence for any negative impacts of protected areas on human well-being in any of our scenarios,” reads the paper.

This means that, on average, there are no economic downside to parks — but Naidoo was quick to point out it doesn’t rule out that in particular instances a park could be economically harmful to locals.

But why would parks deliver such sizable benefits? There are some theories. Tourism, for one thing, brings in direct economic benefits, jobs and often greater infrastructure and more local institutions. Multiple-use parks, meanwhile, allow some access (theoretically sustainable) to natural resources.

Moreover, all protected areas have the potential for greater environmental health and ecosystem services spillover, meaning the nature protected inside the park will, of course, find its way outside the borders: cleaner water and air, flood buffers, access to plants and animal populations outside the park borders.

But some say there’s another side to this.

Unmeasured costs

Earlier this month, a leopard in South Africa’s Kruger National Park scrambled over a fence and killed a toddler the child of a local ranger. Officials described such attacks as “rare,” but also killed the leopard as a precautionary measure.

Our planet is nothing if not complicated and nuanced. And while Naidoo’s research shines a light on the potential benefits of living next to protected areas, not everyone sees it as a final word on the subject.

A tiger snarls at tourists in the foreground at a park in India. Tigers can be incredibly difficult animals to live near. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Niki Rust, an environmental social scientist and consultant, says the study’s results are “basically meaningless” because they neglect one thing: wildlife conflict.

“I don’t doubt that the scientists did a great job with the limited data they had available and I agree with their conclusions in that — with the data they used — it appears on first inspection that protected areas do not put the local communities living near them at a health or economic disadvantage. However, the data used completely misses the biggest costs of living next to protected areas,” she says.

Living adjacent to wilderness can be dangerous and difficult. Wildlife conflict can include anything from the loss of life due to a tiger attack or lion, to crop raiding by monkeys and birds.

“There is a dire need to integrate human-wildlife conflict data into these studies so as not to vastly misrepresent the true picture of what it’s like to live near a protected area,” Rust says. “We need to know the full cost of what it’s really like to live with dangerous animals like elephants, lions and crocodiles that can destroy livelihoods and lives. We have to collect data on the number of people killed or injured by wild animals, the amount of crops eaten by primates, the livestock killed by carnivores and the number of wells destroyed by elephants.”

Rust adds that there are also the less-addressed costs of wildlife conflict — such as the fear and stress of living next to potentially killer predators or dangerous herbivores.

“As with any study, ours has limitations,” says Drew Gerkey, a co-author of the paper and a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts. “Certainly human-wildlife conflict is a very real, negative impact that local people around protected areas can experience. In an ideal world we would have had data for each protected area on the prevalence of such conflict, and this information could have been included in our statistical models in the same way as other variables. Unfortunately, these data simply don’t exist, and so that wasn’t possible.”

Gerkey says there simply isn’t any “comprehensive data set” on human wildlife conflict or, he added, protected area governance, “which was something we had hoped to include in our analysis.”

But he says he believes this lack of data doesn’t necessarily negate the paper’s findings, given that less poverty, increased wealth and better health outcomes for children would still be valid.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that wildlife conflict is not equal everywhere. It can be particularly high in regions like sub-Saharan Africa — think elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, buffaloes, etc. — and parts of Asia — especially those areas with elephants and tigers — but may be minimal to nearly non-existent in other parts of the world. For example, protected areas in Latin America and the Middle East have considerably less wildlife conflict. In places like the Caribbean, such conflict could be said to be near zero, with feral pigs (non-native) and some birds the most likely nuisances.

Naidoo says that every protected area in every region has particular situations that may cause “the story” to differ “from average impacts.” He adds that researchers should consider building up a library of “detailed case studies” to provide greater understanding.

The research also shows that the structure and management of protected areas are vital. Everywhere, protected areas are largely underfunded and in some parts of the world amount to nothing more than paper parks. But investing in tourism brings real benefits to local people, as does creating parks with at least some areas that allow multiple use of natural resources.

“We need to ensure the benefits of living with wildlife outweigh the costs,” says Rust, pointing to conservancies in Namibia as one example of how people can directly benefit, and manage, their own wildlife.

A flock of macaws at a mineral lick in Manu National Park. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Naidoo, meanwhile, says their findings support the idea that protected areas actually deliver on two of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals: wildlife conservation and poverty reduction.

“We now have widespread evidence to suggest that it’s possible that these can in fact happen in concert,” he says.

Researchers have argued for years that one of our strongest tools against both mass extinction and climate change are protected areas. Indeed, in the last few years a number of conservationists have called for Half Earth, the idea of setting aside half of the planet as various types of protected areas and indigenous areas to avoid mass extinction and ecological collapse.

The naturalist and author Wallace Stegner called national parks America’s “best idea.” And while the U.S. did legally codify parks for a new age, the idea of “protected areas” actually has a long human history: indigenous tribes have long set aside areas of land as “sacred” or untouchable, allowing the protection of wildlife in these areas. In some ways, we’ve always had “protected areas.” And maybe that will be our salvation. It certainly was, even in all its complexity and challenges, one of humanity’s best ideas.


Citation: R. Naidoo, D. Gerkey, D. Hole, A. Pfaff, A. M. Ellis, C. D. Golden, D. Herrera, K. Johnson, M. Mulligan, T. H. Ricketts, B. Fisher. Evaluating the impacts of protected areas on human well-being across the developing world. Science Advances, 2019; 5 (4): eaav3006 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav3006

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