One-Third of the World’s Protected Areas Are Threatened by ‘Intense’ Human Pressure

And that spells trouble for global biodiversity

Elephants walk across the road in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. Kim Haughton / Alamy

At the start of the 20th century, the world was home to only a few protected areas dedicated to nature conservation. Today, there are more than 200,000 of these designated spaces, which have grown to cover nearly 15 percent of the world’s land. But a new study has found that many of these protected areas are not so protected, suffering threats like farming, infrastructure development and other “intense” human pressures, Alister Doyle writes for Reuters.

A major shift in conservation efforts took place in the 1990s, following the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. To date, some 200 nations have agree to the treaty, which aims to set aside 17 percent of the world’s land in parks and other sanctuaries by 2020. The goal of these efforts is to protect biodiversity, or the variability of organisms in planet’s ecosystems.

The complex interplay between different organisms in nature can be vitally important to humans. “Some examples are obvious: without plants there would be no oxygen and without bees to pollinate there would be no fruit or nuts,” Damian Carrington writes for the Guardian. “Others are less obvious – coral reefs and mangrove swamps provide invaluable protection from cyclones and tsunamis for those living on coasts, while trees can absorb air pollution in urban areas.”

Since the 1992 convention, nations around the world have created many protected areas for the preservation of biodiversity—they just aren’t doing a very good job of ensuring that these spaces are actually protected, according to the new study, which was published in Science.

Researchers at the University of Queensland analyzed the human footprint, a global map that shows where human pressures are affecting the environment. According to Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic, researchers then delineated areas of human pressure that overlap with protected spaces. They found that six million square kilometers—or 32.8 percent—of the world’s protected areas face “intense human pressure,” as the study authors write.

Among the threats infringing on protected spaces are mining, logging, farming, the development of roads, the building of power lines and light pollution, reports Matt McGrath of the BBC.

Researchers found that wealthy and poor nations alike are failing to adequately enforce their protected areas. Agriculture and buildings have infringed upon Dadohaehaesang National Park, the study authors note as an example. Major roads cross through the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. And in Ukraine, a city is thriving in the midst of Podolskie Tovtry National Park.

“[S]cience like this report holds nations to account and maybe embarrasses them to take some leadership,” Professor James Watson, the study’s lead author, tells McGrath, “because right now no nation is showing that leadership.”

The study authors take care to note that the results of their research do not mean that protected areas should be abolished and defunded. “Protected areas are the primary defense against biodiversity loss,” they write, “but extensive human activity within their boundaries can undermine this.”

The team found fewer instances of human pressure in areas that are strictly protected. This, in turn, suggests that by dedicating appropriate funds and enforcement to protected spaces, nations can go a long way in preserving the planet’s biodiversity.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.