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Protected areas are helping save our favourite animals – but let’s not forget the others

Zebras are among the larger wildlife doing well in protected areas. Stephen Woodley/IUCN, Author provided

Protected areas are helping save our favourite animals – but let’s not forget the others

Protected areas, like national parks and wildlife refuges, are the cornerstones of global conservation efforts. So making sure they achieve their mission is fundamental to our goal of halting biodiversity declines.

Unfortunately, how well protected areas maintain their biodiversity remains poorly understood. While there is clear evidence that protected areas, such as Egmont National Park in New Zealand, can prevent deforestation, there is much less evidence of how well they protect our wildlife.

Our work, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined trends for more than 500 species of birds and mammals in protected areas in 72 countries. The good news is that most animals are doing well, more so for birds than mammals. But that’s no reason to become complacent.

Land surrounding Egmont National Park has been cleared to its edges. NASA/USGS

Winners and losers

On the whole, birds are doing better than mammals, and species in Europe better than those in Africa. Species doing well include hippopotamus, northern hairy-nose wombats and waterfowl across Europe such as flamingoes in the Camargue region of France.

Those declining in protected areas include bushbuck in Selous National Park and other antelope like kob. Common birds such as common teal and European skylark are not immune, nor are a number of shorebirds globally. Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys are declining in Na Hang National Park in Vietnam, Tucuman parrots in Argentina, and the delightful mallee emu-wren declined to precipitously low levels in Ngarkat National Park, before being wiped out in South Australia in a single fire.

South Australia’s mallee emu-wrens were completely wiped out by recent bushfires. Dean Ingwersen, Author provided

As a result of this monitoring data, many of the declining populations we studied have now been targeted for management – for instance, wetland birds across Europe. Others, like shorebirds, are faced with an intimidating cocktail of hard-to-manage international threats.

A few surprises

Unexpectedly, we also found the biggest animals were doing the best. Species like giraffes and zebras have more positive populations than smaller species like jackals.

This is surprising since larger animals tend to be slow to grow, mature and reproduce. As a result they are often slow to recover from population suppression.

Large animals often act as flagships for particular ecosystems. For instance, orang-utans are a flagship for Indonesia’s rainforests. The implication of our research is that focusing on these species is not enough to make sure all species will survive.

While more than half of protected areas we studied are getting better, there remain many protected areas where declines are still occurring worldwide. Despite this, conditions that deliver success for wildlife in protected areas are poorly understood. So, we investigated which parks were doing best and why.

The Camargue’s greater flamingos are doing well. Megan Barnes

Making better reserves

Wildlife in protected areas is going better in wealthier, more developed countries (Europe) compared to developing countries (like in West Africa). It is hard to tell, though, if the difference is due to more resources available in developed countries, or increasing threats in developing nations.

National-scale socioeconomic conditions were also far more important in influencing how well parks protect wildlife than factors such as size, design or type. This shows it’s important to tailor management to social and political conditions. Over long timescales, the design of protected areas is likely to remain important, but our results show the importance of managing parks for more immediate threats.

A pygmy hippo. Ben Collen

Our results suggest that active management – like managing invasive predators, preventing poaching and reducing conflict between people and wildlife – helps animals with low reproductive rates and mitigates the greater threat faced by larger species of birds and mammals due to their slow reproductive rates. Parks still need to be well-managed, though, and threats can’t become too severe – as in the recent poaching crisis.

The tools to ensure good outcomes from protected areas exist — but the will and capacity to implement them must be strengthened if we expect them to act as refuges for all species forever.

This week at the World Conservation Congress, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and NGOs will vote on policies to halt biodiversity declines by 2020. To date, conservationists have focused on increasing the size of the global protected area estate, but simply establishing more protected areas is not enough.

Instead, we need a radical change in commitment. To do this we need to address shortfalls in management. Ensuring both sufficient and secure finances for management and appropriate and equitable governance is just the beginning. Otherwise we’ll keep creating more parks, but wildlife will keep declining.