Many of the world’s conservation reserves, intended to safeguard species at risk of survival, are increasingly unable to provide effective refuge.

At least one third of all the forests, grasslands, wetlands and mangroves notionally protected by laws to safeguard the wild things that evolved with them are under intense human pressure, according to the first detailed study for 25 years.

Major road systems criss-cross African wildlife reserves, cities have grown up in national park areas, and farmland and buildings blight landscapes supposedly reserved for endemic species at hazard from extinction. Altogether 6 million square kilometres (2.3m square miles) of protected land, researchers say, are “under intense human pressure.”

Since the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was agreed in 1992, the area of the world declared as protected has doubled in size, and more than 202,000 patches of conservation area and national park cover 14.7% of the Earth’s land surface.

Some of these areas are strictly for conservation of biodiversity; some permit limited human exploitation but are still intended mainly to provide habitat for the wild creatures.

Australian and Canadian scientists report in the journal Science that they examined what they call “human footprint” maps of the globe to make their assessment. The human footprint metric incorporates built environments, intensive agriculture, pasture lands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways and navigable waterways.

The scientists found that only 42% of these lands were free of measurable human pressure. But 32.8%, an area of more than 6m sq km – almost twice the size of India – counted as under intense pressure.

What worried the scientists most was what happened to some landscapes that were intact and in a natural state when declared as protected: since 1993, around 280,000 square kilometres of such wilderness had shifted from low disturbance to intense human pressure: this is an area almost as large as Italy.

Complete Human Dependence

Almost three fourths of the world’s nations – that is, 137 countries – have 50% of their protected land under intense human pressure. “If one assumes that protected land under intense human pressure does not contribute towards conservation targets,” the scientists write, “we show that 74 of 111 nations that have reached a level of 17% protected coverage would drop out of that list.”

Almost all human resources – including food and drink, fabrics and medicines – are derived from the planet’s biodiversity: even the coal, natural gas and petrol that drives the human economy was once wild forest and reed bed. Researchers have repeatedly stressed the importance of biodiversity to all human economic activity – they call it natural capital – and warned that continued loss of wild native plants and animals could have catastrophic consequences. The authors of the Science study warn that if human pressure increases, the goals of the CBD will be severely undermined.

“A well-run protected area network is essential in saving species,” said Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland. “If we allow our protected area network to be degraded there is no doubt biodiversity losses will be exacerbated.”

And his co-author James Watson of the World Conservation Society said: “Most importantly, we’ve got to recognise that these jewels in the crown need support – there are some protected areas that are safeguarding nature and that still haven’t got any evidence of human encroachment in them. We must ensure these values are maintained.”


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