Designating an area a national park is not enough to protect thousands of species of birds and animals at risk, a new study warns.
Strengthening the protection of existing parks and other wildlife havens is “crucial” for biodiversity conservation, according to the findings.
Scientists say that making sure existing parks work to protect animals and plants is as crucial for safeguarding biodiversity as creating new protected areas.
An international research team found that about 70 percent of the roughly 5,000 species analyzed either have no apparent representation in protected areas, occur in protected areas that have been downgraded or downsized or would be especially vulnerable to extinction from future land-use change.
But their findings show that by enhancing the protection of existing protected areas and by expanding the existing park networks across just one percent of the planet’s land area, the essential habitats of 1,191 animal species that are especially at risk of extinction can be protected.
Protected areas can be vulnerable to harmful human activities if there is not enough enforcement or a lack of political backing for wildlife conservation, according to the findings published in the journal Science Advances.
Scientists say parks become less effective at protecting species when they experience downgrading, downsizing or de-gazettement – known as PADDD events, which occur when a government decides to roll-back the legal protections governing a park, diminishing the degree or extent of protection afforded to it.
The research team warned that such changes could result in forest clearance for infrastructure expansion, mining or other activities and translate to the loss or degradation of habitats.
More than 278 million hectares of parks, as of 2021, are known to have been cumulatively subject to PADDD events, the researchers found.
They highlighted the example of Megophrys damrei, a critically endangered frog found only in Cambodia and nowhere else in the world.
Even though its habitat is protected, the area continues to suffer habitat degradation and loss within national park boundaries and neighboring surroundings.
The team says that expanding the protected area network could also benefit species whose habitats currently lack sufficient protection.
The study found that protecting an additional 330 square kilometers (127sq miles) of natural landscapes within Indonesia would safeguard the suitable habitats of 53 species that currently lack protected area coverage and have limited area of habitat.
The team said that the Sangihe golden bulbul is a “critically endangered” songbird species found only on Sangihe Island in Indonesia and nowhere else in the world.
Estimates put the entire population of the species at between 50 and 230 individuals remaining at one site, which is not protected.
The species is absent from plantations, suggesting it is a sensitive species that can only thrive in good forests and would benefit from enhanced conservation.
Dr. Rebecca Senior, of Durham University, said: “There are many wonderful examples in conservation of people fighting to protect species, but there is always a risk that when you take your eye off the ball, pressure builds, and hard-won protection is lost.
“Designating parks on paper is not enough; they need to be in the right places, with the right management, and they need to last.”
Study lead author Dr. Zeng Yiwen, of the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: “This study establishes a geography of arks: where new parks can be created, and where to restore and reinforce existing parks, to boost wildlife conservation.
“Many global discussions on conservation rightfully center around the need to create new protected areas.
“These include discussions at the COP15 United Nations biodiversity conference in December 2022, where a target to protect 30 percent of the planet’s lands and seas was adopted.
“But our study also shows the importance of ensuring that protected areas remain effective at keeping out harmful human activity.”
The findings of the new study come amid growing recognition of the need to conserve the planet’s biodiversity by creating new protected areas.
At the United Nations biodiversity conference (COP15) last December, countries had agreed on a target to set aside 30 percent of Earth’s land and seas as protected areas.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker