Do protected areas actually help wildlife?

Environment | Earth Systems

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published May 8th, 2022

The idea of designating areas as protected—under the assumption they will benefit wildlife—forms the basis of modern conservation. However, there is evidence demonstrating that designating protected areas is not necessarily beneficial to wildlife, highlighting the need to ensure effective protected area management.

Protected areas, places ostensibly set aside for nature, have been the cornerstone of conservation practices for more than a century, with international conservation policy focused on increasing the proportion of the Earth’s surface that is protected.

Currently, roughly 16% of land and 7% of the ocean are designated as protected areas, and there are prominent calls for the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to set a target of protecting 30% of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030—there are even calls to reach 50% by 2050.

It appears highly likely that the new UN Global Biodiversity Framework will include a new 30x30 protection target. | David Troeger / Unsplash

Over 90 countries have now joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which is championing this 30x30 initiative. But questions have been raised if simply designating a greater proportion of the Earth’s surface is an effective conservation measure.

A new global study published in Nature, which focused on waterbird species, has found that the majority of animal populations do not directly benefit from protected areas. The authors focused upon waterbirds, as their broad distribution and ability to respond rapidly to alterations in habitat quality makes it easier to identify population changes in response to habitat variability compared to other taxonomic groups.

By comparing populations in protected and unprotected areas before and after the date of protected area designation, the authors could isolate any changes in the waterbird populations as a response to the area becoming protected. They found that across almost all sites, populations showed a range of positive to negative responses. Overall, 27% of all populations were positively impacted, 21% were negatively impacted, and 48% exhibited no significant change.

‘[in response to protected area designation] 27% of all populations were positively impacted, 21% were negatively impacted, and 48% exhibited no significant change.’

Of the 48% that exhibited no significant change, 85% of the populations were increasing or showed no change in trends. So whilst protection did not have a demonstrative positive impact, the populations still appeared to be healthy.

Given that protected areas are the default tool in conservation practice, and that there is a scramble to designate more of the Earth’s surface as protected, it is concerning that in almost half of the waterbird populations, no positive signal could be detected. Even more concerning, is that one in five populations declined even where there was supposed protection.

These negative responses could reflect what conservationists call ‘paper parks’; areas with formal protection on paper, but no on-the-ground management. Protected areas are of little use if no effective management or enforcement system is in place. Unfortunately, data on management effectiveness is absent in this case.

Abberton Reservoir in Essex, United Kingdom, is a Special Protection Area, meaning it is a protected area for birds under UK law. | Ed Thorn / Flickr

While there is no breakdown based on management effectiveness, the authors did find that if sites were specifically managed for waterbirds (Ramsar or Special Protection Areas—Birds Directive) the outcome was more likely to be positive. They also found that larger protected areas were consistently correlated with positive results, although few were significant.

Overall, however, a large waterbird managed area could increase the probability of a positive impact on a population anywhere from one to 25 percentage points (where the mean is equal to nine percentage points).

‘The authors found that if sites were specifically managed for waterbirds the outcome was more likely to be positive.’

These results make clear that it is not a straightforward linear path from protection to desirable population outcomes, despite plenty of evidence detailing that protected areas slow habitat loss. Simply designating ever higher percentages of the Earth’s surface will not guarantee success, a trap policy makers frequently fall into, who are unwilling to provide the incentives or investments that will ensure their effective management.

There are also concerns that area-based targets such as the 30x30 initiative will lead to land grabs that will continue to displace indigenous people, despite them contributing little to global biodiversity decline.

This does not have to be the case, a good example can be taken from marine protected area (MPA) management. Although MPA management is broadly ineffective, there is growing interest in what is known as Territorial Use Rights for Fisheries(TURFs), which allocate secure and exclusive access to marine life to local and indigenous people within a certain proportion of a protected area. Such programs typically produce better conservation outcomes than trying to ban all activity in an MPA.

So, while some top-down state direction is still required in conservation, it should include policies and incentives that are drafted to empower local and indigenous people to safeguard their environment, rather than removing them from it.

Indigenous peoples should be custodians of protected areas. | CIFOR / Flickr

It is important to note that while this study highlights that protected areas are not always effective, no one is suggesting that protected areas are not a useful conservation tool. Properly enforced and well managed protected areas, especially those that are large and focus on given taxa, can deliver incredible results.

But if biodiversity loss is to be halted, the management of existing protected areas must be strengthened, and measures must be taken to reduce the ubiquitous threats—such as climate change—that extend across area borders, and the ever-increasing area-based targets must be accompanied by equally bold targets to drive better management practices.

Featured Image: Sarah Cottle | Unsplash

Burkart K. (2021) ‘Motion 101 passes at IUCN, calls for protecting 50% of Earth’s lands and seas.’ One Earth. Available at: [Accessed April 29th, 2022]

Feng Y., Wang Y., Su H. et al (2021) ‘Assessing the effectiveness of global protected areas based on the difference in differences model.’ Ecological Indicators. Volume 130.

Quynh C.N.T., Schilizzi S., Hailu A. et al (2017) Territorial Use Rights for Fisheries (TURFs): State of the art and the road ahead. Marine Policy. Volume 75, pages 41-52.

Survival International (2022) ‘The Big Green Lie.’ Survival International. Available at: [Accessed April 29th, 2022]

UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2021) ‘Protected Planet Report 2020.’ Available at: [Accessed April 29th, 2022].

Wauchope H.S., Jones J.P. and Geldmann J., et al (2022) Protected areas have a mixed impact on waterbirds, but management helps. Nature. Pages 1-5.

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