Half of the world’s richest biodiversity zones unprotected: UN study

Fast progress needed on targets for protected areas especially marine areas, it adds

By M Suchitra
Published: Tuesday 23 October 2012

Despite the growing number of nature reserves, national parks and other protected areas across the globe, half of the world’s richest biodiversity zones remain entirely unprotected. The protected areas in the world have increased by 60 per cent since 1990. But the world is making insufficient progress towards the goals pledged under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, including a set of 20 headline targets—Aichi Biodiversity Targets—due to poor management of protected areas, under-funding and lack of critical data.

These are among the main findings of “Protected Planet Report 2012” of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that tracks progress towards the internationally-agreed targets on the world’s protected areas. The report was presented in the recently held United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Hyderabad.

Produced by UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) in partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the study is the first in an annual series that will monitor global efforts to support and expand protected areas, said UN under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director, Achim Steiner.

High commitments, little action

Recognising the importance of protected areas, a number of international conferences, conventions and agreements have, over the past 40 years set ambitious targets for the global community. The 1992 CBD requires its signatory nations or Parties to establish protected area systems to conserve biodiversity. In 2004, the CBD Parties adopted the Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA), the most comprehensive protected area commitment ever made by the international community. The PoWPA includes 16 goals and a series of time-bound targets.

 Concluding that biodiversity targets had not been met at the global level, in 2010, the CBD Parties adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, including a set of 20 headline targets-Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Effective protected areas are essential for the achievement of several of these targets, in particular Target 5 and 12, which deal with habitat and species loss. Target 11, the one that deals specifically with protected areas and other area-based conservation measures says, “ By 2012, at least 17 per cent of the terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are to be conserved through effective and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”
“Protected areas contain some 15 per cent of the world’s carbon stock and support the livelihoods of over one billion people, making them a crucial factor in supporting biodiversity, ecosystem services and human livelihoods,” said Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of IUCN.

But according to the report, just over 12 per cent of the global land and inland water areas are protected. To meet the CBD target of conserving 17 per cent terrestrial and inland water areas, an additional six million square kilometres of land and inland waters would have to be recognised as protected by world governments.

Marine protected areas are lagging even further behind. Around 1.6 per cent of the global ocean area is protected, mostly near-coastal areas. To meet the CBD target of 10 per cent, an additional eight million square kilometres of marine and coastal areas would need to be recognised as protected.

However, the UNEP study states that the number of very large marine protected areas (MPAs) has grown significantly in recent years. At present, there are over 13 MPAs each with an area greater than 100,000 square kilometres. Overall, marine protected area coverage has increased by over 150 per cent since 2003.

Are protected areas in the right place?

The UNEP study uses a number of indicators to assess the location of existing protected areas. These include ‘ecoregions’ (large areas with characteristic combinations of species distinct from adjacent areas) and other internationally-recognised biodiversity zones, such as Important Bird Areas.

 The study finds that the global protected area network does not yet provide adequate coverage to the world’s ecoegions. Latest figures show that half of the world’s key ecoregions only have 10 per cent of their area protected, suggesting critical gaps in biodiversity protection.

Only 13 per cent of the world’s marine ecoregions meet the CBD’s 10 per cent coverage target.  The UNEP study says that a dramatic acceleration in the creation or expansion of marine protect areas is needed to cover strategic sites and reduce biodiversity gaps.

The number of Important Bird Areas completely covered by protected areas has risen to 28 per cent, yet just under half had no coverage at all. In Australia, the report points out, 13 per cent of all threatened species and 21 per cent of critically endangered species are not covered by any protected area. In Africa, around 26 per cent of threatened bird species are not covered by any protected area.

The UNEP report says that the ecological performance of protected areas also remains poorly understood. Further studies are needed to analyse the impacts of protected areas on species, ecosystems and genetic resources. This will also require improved, comprehensive datasets on protected areas, and on biodiversity trends outside protected zones.

Management and governance

The report underlines the need for more equitable and participatory management of the protected areas, from small nature reserves to large national parks, to achieve their objectives. Countries have also committed to managing protected areas in a more equitable way, where indigenous communities, civil society and other non-government bodies play an active role, points out the report. 

According to a 2010 study, less than a third of the world’s protected areas have a management plan in place, and only a quarter of all protected areas have been judged to have sound management. Lack of funding, facilities and equipment, staff shortage and limited interaction with local communities are among the main barriers to effective management. According to the report, from 1990 to 2000, the total protected area managed by non-governmental bodies, or under co-management, increased from about 4 per cent to 23 per cent.

Investment is the need
According to the report, current investment in protected area is only around half of what is needed to support endangered species, protect threatened habitats and deliver the full benefits that protected areas can deliver.
Changing current government spending practices on the environment also has significant potential for biodiversity conservation. A terrestrial protected area system covering 17 per cent of global land area (the 2020 target), could be established and managed at a fraction of the current amount spent by governments on environmentally-harmful subsidies, according to a 2009 study, points out the report.

But for focusing on a shift from the present governments’ spending pattern, and making community efforts more effective, what the UNEP report recommends is that protected areas further develop alternative revenue streams, such as tourist fees, private sector funding, and payment for ecosystem services.


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