Conservation news

We’re not protecting enough of the right areas to save biodiversity: Study

A local fisherman in Tonga. Tonga has less than 1% marine protected areas around the island. Photo by Asian Development Bank via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A local fisherman in Tonga. Tonga has less than 1% marine protected areas around the island. Photo by Asian Development Bank via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • In 2010, the member nations of the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 195 countries plus the EU, agreed that at least 17% of global land and 10% of the ocean needed to be protected by 2020.
  • A new global review finds that many countries have fallen short of these targets, and the expansion of protected areas over the past 10 years has not successfully covered priority areas such as biodiversity hotspots and areas providing ecosystem services.
  • The research team overlaid maps of protected areas, threatened species, productive fisheries, and carbon services, and found that 78% of known threatened species do not have adequate protection.
  • Adequate protection of the world’s biodiversity will require conservation areas in the right places, the involvement of Indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making and management, ecologically connectivity between protected areas, and much more financing.

The past decade began with promise, as nearly every country on the planet made commitments to protect large areas of land, safeguarding global biodiversity amid the ongoing sixth mass extinction.

But many countries have fallen short of these commitments, and area-based conservation efforts are not protecting biodiversity as planned, according to the new review “Area-based conservation in the twenty-first century” written by a team of researchers from 14 international institutions and published in the journal Nature.

In 2010, members of the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), comprising 195 countries plus the EU, agreed that at least 17% of global land and 10% of the ocean needed to be protected by 2020. Biodiversity hotspots and areas providing critical ecosystem services were to be prioritized to maximize their conservation effectiveness.

The critically endangered golden frog (Mantella aurantiaca) lives in Madagascar. Around 8% of terrestrial landscapes in Madagascar are under formal protection, and 6% of its territorial waters are protected. However, since the arrival of humans, the island has lost 90% of its forest cover. Image by Frank Vassen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“We’re in a global biodiversity crisis that threatens our collective future,” the study’s lead author, Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia, said in a statement. “We understand what needs to be done to effectively and equitably manage this biodiversity crisis, but governments have dramatically underinvested in protected areas and have been weak in legally protecting them.”

Expansion of protected areas over the past 10 years by national governments has not successfully protected species, the review says, because these areas are not adequately covering all necessary “elements of biodiversity.” These elements include varied ecoregions, threatened species, key biodiversity hotspots, wilderness areas, and ecosystem services such as fisheries and carbon capture.

The research team overlaid maps of protected areas, threatened species, productive fisheries, and carbon services, and found that 78% of known threatened species do not have adequate protection. No formal protections exist for seven of the most world’s most productive regions for fishing.

Achieving the 17% protected target for land would require the rate of expansion of protected areas to double compared to the past decade.

The Labuan Bajo fish market in Indonesia. Indonesia has committed to designating 200,000 square kilometers (77,200 square miles) of its territorial waters for conservation by 2020, and has, to date, achieved about 96% of its target. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Recent biodiversity reports have been bleak. The Earth is experiencing a sixth mass extinction, caused by humans. Nearly 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction. More than 500 vertebrate species are almost extinct, with populations of fewer than a thousand individuals.

A U.N. report in September found that globally, we have failed to reach the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, established in 2010 under the CBD to curb biodiversity loss and preserve essential ecosystem services.

Ahead of the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity this year, 71 world leaders endorsed a pledge to accelerate action to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and tackle climate change. This pledge built on momentum from the 30×30 plan, a  science-based target to protect 30% of the planet by 2030, included in the most recent draft of the CBD as one of its 20 post-2020 strategies.

Red-shanked douc langurs (Pygathrix nemaeus), a critically endangered species, in central Vietnam. Vietnam was reported to have over 7% protected areas in 2018, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators. Image by David Cook via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

“This is an important paper,” Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email. The study, he said, reinforces, “that the world’s protected and conserved areas need to be in the right places, that Indigenous peoples and local communities rights and conservation approaches need to be recognized and centered, that protected and conserved areas need to be ecologically connected, and that there is a major financing gap that must be closed. Those are the important details of 30×30, that cannot be overlooked going forward.”

Equitable decision-making and management have an important role to play. Including Indigenous and community groups, which are often are inadequately or inequitably represented in the decision-making process, and protecting Indigenous rights are paramount, as an estimated 36% of ecologically intact forests lie within Indigenous peoples’ territories. Nearly 14% of mammal species assessed by the IUCN have greater than half of their ranges within these lands.

The researchers also acknowledge the growing recognition of other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) as tools to address gaps in biodiversity coverage and meet the need for connectivity among protected areas. OECMs are areas outside of official protected areas that deliver biodiversity conservation. These could be private conservation initiatives, government-run water catchment areas, or territories protected by local communities and Indigenous people.

A man fishing in the early morning in Tonga. Tonga has less than 1% marine protected areas surrounding the island. Image by Asia Development Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The long-term success of these area-based conservation efforts will also require investment. The CBD and its members will need to secure enough financing to reach commitments, the review says. At present, the researchers estimate that 91% of all projects, both on land and at sea, lack adequate on-site staff capacity. Reaching full capacity could cost billions of dollars.

The U.N.’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre keeps track of area-based conservation targets and monitors progress toward those targets on land and in the ocean, O’Donnell, said. Financial commitments from nations and contributions from the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund, two major organizations that support conservation efforts, are publicly disclosed.

“It is up to citizens, the media, and organizations to make sure that countries keep their financial and conservation commitments,” O’Donnell said.

“Our evidence makes a powerful case for much better implementation and ambition after 2020,” Maxwell said. “Adequately funded and equitably managed protected areas are one of our best tools for reducing threats to biodiversity.”

A monk seal swimming over a coral reef bottom in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The islands of Hawaii are surrounded by a protected area nearly twice the size of Texas. Photo courtesy of NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Citation:

Maxwell, S. L., Cazalis, V., Dudley, N., Hoffmann, M., Rodrigues, A. S. L., Stolton, S., … Watson, J. E. M. (2020). Area-based conservation in the twenty-first century. Nature586(7828), 217-227. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2773-z

Banner image: A local fisherman in Tonga. Tonga has less than 1% marine protected areas around the island. Photo by Asian Development Bank via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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