Selling the protected area myth

  • Protected areas is the result of a peculiar foible of the human mind
- RICHARD CONNIFF

Jun 12, 2018-It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first is that designating protected areas is relatively easy (and with publicity bonus points for politicians), but hardly anyone seems to be bothering with the hard work of actually protecting them. Roughly a third of national parks, reserves, refuges and the like now face intense and increasing human pressure, according to a recent study in the journal Science.

It’s not just a familiar story of poor nations failing to train and properly equip rangers, according to the report’s senior author, James E. M. Watson, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland. He points to Australia’s Barrow Island Marine Park, granted a wealthy nation’s highest level of protection because it is home to variety of rare mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates, many found nowhere else in the world. Even so, in 2003, said Mr. Watson, the government allowed construction and expansion of a vast energy complex there, supplied by more than 450 oil and natural gas wells—the Aussie counterpart to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Other nations look at what’s happening in Australia and the United States, and they say, ‘Why should we bother?’ ” he said.

Governments that boast about their protected areas without actually protecting them, Mr. Watson said, are “selling a myth.” Even Unesco’s Natural World Heritage sites—supposedly the planet’s greatest natural treasures—have a human footprint closer on average to farmland than to wilderness, he notes. When Tanzania, for instance, wanted to dig a uranium mine in its vast and storied Selous Game Reserve, once home to the one of the world’s largest population of elephants, Unesco approved the 135-square mile project—and duly moved the Selous onto its list of endangered World Heritage sites.

So many protected areas now face development that there’s an acronym for it—Paddd, for protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement—and a website for keeping up on the bad news.

The second problem with protected areas is the result of a peculiar foible of the human mind: Politicians, like the rest of us, are suckers for numeric targets like the ones in the Convention on Biodiversity. These targets seem simple, objective, easily comparable from one place to the next, and inexpensive to measure. But the perverse outcome is that governments have ignored the convention’s admonition to protect areas “of particular importance to biodiversity” and instead focused almost entirely on maximising acreage, according to a recent study in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The standard strategy is to designate protected areas in remote regions where the cost and the inconvenience to humans is minimal. Australia, for instance, has largely put protected areas in its vast central desert region, rather than in coastal areas where they would protect more threatened species—but also inconvenience more people. Likewise, Brazil in March designated new marine protected areas the size of France and the United Kingdom combined, but omitted near-shore areas where there’s a greater diversity of wildlife facing more immediate threats from human activity.

Writing about the Half-Earth Project, a bid by conservationists to keep half the planet “as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible,” E. O. Wilson cautioned that making decisions about which habitats to protect without a more complete knowledge of Earth’s existing species “would lead to irreversible mistakes.” But the authors of the Nature Ecology and Evolution study put it more tersely: Pretending to protect species based purely on the number of acres protected is like managing human health care based on the number of hospital beds, “irrespective of the presence of trained medical staff” or “whether patients live or die.”

Researchers who looked at the home ranges of more than 4,000 threatened birds, mammals and amphibians worldwide for a 2014 study found that protected areas miss 85 percent of them. Even if all 168 convention signatories meet their 2020 protected area targets, their acreage monomania means they’d still miss 84 percent of threatened species, says Oscar Venter, a conservation scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia and the lead

author of that study. Is it any wonder, then, that species and subspecies continue to go extinct—the western black rhino in 2011, the Japanese river otter in 2012, the Formosan clouded leopard in 2013, the Bramble Cay melomys in 2016—even as we celebrate our success stories?

“If we are going to take natural history seriously, and all the things our communities and our economies depend on from natural areas,” Mr. Venter said, “we have to start putting parks in the right places and managing them in the right way.” That will at times entail setting aside our profits and our precious convenience, and it may seem like a stretch to imagine our self-indulgent species ever acting on this reality. But the alternative is to spent our lives in a world increasingly without wildlife.

—©2018The New York Times

Published: 12-06-2018 07:31

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