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New guidebook draws on real-world experiences for running private nature reserves

tapir valley tree frog (Tlalocohyla celeste)

  • New guidelines provide practical tips for creating and managing sustainable private nature reserves, based on a global survey of more than 50 practitioners worldwide.
  • Three-quarters of private reserves rely heavily on fundraising, and only 4% are financially self-sufficient, highlighting the need for diverse income streams.
  • The publication covers key questions on motives, readiness, sustainability, costs, proposals, community engagement and more, with checklists, surveys, testimonials and how-to guides.

A new guidebook provides practical guidance for creating and managing sustainable private nature reserves. The “Sustainable Nature Reserves: Guidelines to Create Privately Protected Areas” offers step-by-step recommendations for individuals, nonprofits, communities, and other groups interested in purchasing and managing land for conservation purposes.

The guidebook, released by the IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL) and the American Bird Conservancy, distills lessons learned from a global survey of more than 50 reserve managers in 22 countries.

“Although effective, fulfilling, and proactive, the creation of private reserves has many challenges that should be considered in advance,” the guidelines state. “It differs from most other conservation projects in its ‘foreverness’, requiring a greater concern about economic sustainability in the long term.”

The publication covers key questions on motives, readiness, sustainability, costs, maintenance, proposals, community engagement, restoration, and management tools. Each section includes checklists, survey results, practitioner testimonials, and how-to guides.

“The nine steps outlined in this practical guide represent many decades of collective knowledge from real on-the-ground conservation organizations,” Ryan Lynch, director of Third Millennium Alliance, which manages a private reserve in Ecuador, told Mongabay. “It is a must-read for anyone that is considering establishing their own private protected area, and will prove extremely useful over the years as they face challenges to scaling up and maintaining their efforts in perpetuity.”

Best practices highlighted include starting community engagement and fundraising early, finding local champions, aiming for self-sufficiency, monitoring progress, and weaving in traditional knowledge. Gender inclusion and social equity are also emphasized as keys to success.

A river flows through Jama Coaque Reserve on Ecuador’s northwest coast. The reserve is privately run by the NGO Third Millennium Alliance. Image courtesy of TMA.

A key finding is that 76% of private reserves surveyed rely primarily on continuous fundraising rather than self-generated income. Only 4% were found to be financially self-sufficient, which one of the report authors, Lucia Guaita, called surprising.

“This and more indicate that there is still plenty to be done to support the great and invaluable work that field-based nature conservationists do,” Guaita said.

“Being continuously dependent on international donations, even to a small degree, is not a sustainable approach,” the guidelines note. “Although most private reserves rely heavily on fundraising at first, in order to pursue long-term economic sustainability, they must develop other sources of income.”

The publication highlights 19 potential income streams, from ecotourism to sustainable resource extraction to endowment funds. It stresses the need to diversify funding sources and not exceed 25% dependency on any single revenue stream.

Regarding startup costs, survey respondents reported housing, fences, road access, and vehicles as the main expenses. Staff salaries were by far the number one monthly cost.

The guidebook includes 36 testimonials from reserve practitioners globally, offering practical tips on building community relationships, negotiating land access, promoting restoration, and more.

“We hope this guidebook will inspire future reserve owners to design more sustainable nature reserves, while providing useful tools for those already dealing with the daily challenges of reserve protection and management,” the authors conclude.

Banner image of  the tapir valley tree frog (Tlalocohyla celeste), a new species, was found on a private nature reserve in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Tapir Valley Nature Reserve.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

Mongabay’s Conservation Potential series investigates: Where do we need to protect biodiversity?


Campos, A., Guaita, L., Hennessey, B. and Hoogeslag, M., 2022. Sustainable Nature Reserves: Guidelines for creating privately protected areas. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, IUCN NL. xiv + 93pp.

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