In this post Associate Editor Peter Bridgewater discusses protected areas and the recent People and Nature article ‘The contribution of land tenure diversity to the spatial resilience of protected area networks‘. Peter is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Applied Ecology and Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He tweets @Global_Garden0.

We are well used to the idea that Protected Areas (PAs) are important for conserving (bio)diversity.  So, it was interesting to see a recent paper in People and Nature, The contribution of land tenure diversity to the spatial resilience of protected area networks, by Alta de Vos and Graeme Cumming, that raises some interesting points for debate on the diversity of PAs we have.  The Regional Assessment Report for Africa, produced by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2018 has the following statement: “ The expansion and effective management of terrestrial and marine protected areas and the provision of a network of corridors that connect protected environments are also critical for efforts in mitigating and adapting to climate change.” 

That comment plays into the subject of the paper by De Vos and Cumming, and hints at the future of PAs (spoiler alert from me – do they have one?).  Leaving that aside until later, their paper reports on work undertaken in South Africa, a country whose PA system developed in mimic to the US National Parks Service system. And to many people PAs are National Parks, Nature Reserves and the like, all of them managed by “the Government”.  However, in the last few decades a new phenomenon has emerged – Privately-owned PAs (PPAs).  Such PAs often look and feel like a state-owned reserve, and yet they are privately funded and managed.

In many parts of the world protected area expansion strategies are increasingly turning to private land conservation to increase the configuration and connectivity of national protected area networks. This is true in the UK with Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Waterfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) private nature reserves, as well as National Trust reserves.  In Australia, there are several organisations involved with private reserve acquisition and establishment, as well as International NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.  Yet we know little about the relative role of privately-owned protected areas in protecting threatened and poorly protected (under-represented) habitats, and in the overall connectivity of the national protected area network.

De Vos and Cumming make several key points regarding the situation in South Africa.  In the ideal they suggest PAs are areas where biodiversity is protected from human influences. But, as they point out, “all protected areas (even wilderness areas far away from people) are social-ecological systems”.  Here I need to take issue with the use of the term wilderness, although I accept it is widely used.  I object to it because it both dehumanises nature and ignores the effects on the landscapes by especially Indigenous peoples and local communities.  Note to Chief Editor – perhaps we need a special issue of PAN looking at that whole issue of wilderness and biodiversity 😊?

The authors focus on connectivity and content of PPAs, and their work suggests a staggering contribution of PPAs of 25.58% to the total PA estate. Further, they identify that “these private areas are the dominant protected area types in under-represented and threatened habitats, and that PPAs also had the largest overall effect on connectivity within the national network”.  In all, they conclude that PPAs are strategically positioned to connect other types of PAs.   They also demonstrate that PPAs protect between 30% – 40%, of poorly protected, threatened, or endangered vegetation types. 

On the negative side, unlike in state-owned PAs, PPAs may not able to buffer under-performing or stressed PAs elsewhere in the network by e.g. reallocation of funding across the PA network. Conversely, the existence of PAs with different management approaches may also be a source of resilience.  This exemplify the cases of flawed or ineffective management strategies dealing with a range of disturbance challenges or managing for species conservation.  They indicate some examples, including type and frequency of fire regime, grazing pressures etc. between similar managed habitats.

Much conservation biology theory suggests that the resilience protected areas and their networks have (i.e. how likely they are to remain functional as protected areas) is linked to how diverse and connected they are.  De Vos and Cumming develop cogent arguments that “Institutional diversity may be particularly important for protected areas, whose managerial responses to environmental change depend on their legal basis, ability to make and enforce rules, and socio-political acceptance and endorsement.”  And they cite the value of their analyses due to South Africa having a long history of both officially proclaimed (legislated or gazetted in other countries) of both state-owned and privately-owned protected areas.

Their results suggest that privately-owned protected areas enhance the resilience of the national protected area network in South Africa, making it more extensive and connected, with greater levels of habitat redundancy incorporated in the combined network. It is clear from their analyses that institutional diversity is an important issue in building resilient PA networks for biodiversity conservation – and that this may be quite a widespread phenomenon.

Finally, while these conclusions are interesting, they don’t address the elephant in the room (or protected area!) – How much longer will a PA network be a viable source of practical conservation?  At international level the Convention on Biological Diversity and the IUCN have been advocating ever greater coverage of PAs.  Yet such advocacy flies in the face of increasing problems in maintaining a coherent network given the range of global changes challenging the earth system, let alone sharply declining funding streams for PA management. 

Returning to the IPBES regional assessments there are common themes e.g. in the Asia-Pacific Assessment it is stated that Concerns remain over coverage and management of the protected area networks”; in the Europe and Central Asia Assessment we find “Although protected areas have expanded in the region, protected areas alone cannot prevent biodiversity loss. Only where protected areas are managed effectively can they contribute to the prevention of biodiversity loss.”; and in the Africa Assessment “Current protected area networks may need to be re-aligned to account for the climate change”.  These points, and many others, suggest we need a global rethink on the real value of PAs, and the current global network.  But that is strong stuff, and maybe for another blog, meanwhile enjoy the paper and take heart from it, especially if you own or manage a PPA!