Threats to biodiversity insurance from protected areas

26 07 2012

A red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This small island, just 1500 ha (3700 acres) in area, is one of the tropical protected areas evaluated in this study (photo © Christian Ziegler <>, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Note: It is prohibited for any third party or agency to use or license this image; any use other then described above shall be subject to usage fees as determined solely by the photographer.

Much of conservation science boils down to good decision making: when, where and how we ‘set aside’ terrestrial or marine areas for specific protection against the ravages of human endeavour. This is the basis for the entire sub-discipline of conservation planning and prioritisation, and features prominantly in most aspects of applied conservation and restoration.

In other words, we do all this science to determine where we should emplace protected areas, lobby for getting more land and sea set aside so that we have ‘representative’ amounts (i.e., to prevent extinctions), and argue over the best way to manage these areas once established.

But what if this pinnacle of conservation achievement is itself under threat? What if many of our protected areas are struggling to insure biodiversity against human consumption? Well, it’d be a scary prospect, to say the least.

Think of it this way. We buy insurance policies to buffer our investments against tragedy; this applies to everything from our houses, worldly possessions, cars, livestock, health, to forest carbon stores. We buy the policies to give us peace of mind that in the event of a disaster, we’ll be bailed out of the mess with a much-needed cash injection. But what if following the disaster we learn that the policy is no good? What if there isn’t enough pay-out to fix the mess?

In biodiversity conservation, our ‘insurance’ is largely provided by protected areas. We believe that come what may, at least in these (relatively) rare places, biodiversity will persist despite our relentless consumerism.

Unfortunately, what we believe isn’t necessarily true.

Today I’m both proud and alarmed to present our latest research on the performance of tropical protected areas around the world. Published online in Nature this morning (evening, for you Europeans) is the 216-author (yes, that is correct – 216 of us) paper entitled “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas” led by Bill Laurance.

Using data derived mainly from exhaustive expert interviews (hence the long co-author list) and validated with real time-series data, we looked at 31 functional groups of species (e.g., big predators, raptors, rodents, dung beetles, lianas & vines, etc.) in 60 tropical protected areas across Asia, Africa and the Americas to see whether they had remained stable, increased or decreased in abundance over the last 20 or 30 years.

With these data, we constructed a ‘reserve-health index’, which showed that about half of the 60 protected areas we examined weren’t doing terribly well (i.e., they were in poor biodiversity ‘health’). Of course, this also means that about half of the reserves were doing reasonably well at protecting their biodiversity.

Perhaps not all that surprisingly for unprotected habitats, the species groups known to be sensitive to change (e.g., big predators and other large-bodied animals, many primates, old-growth trees, and stream-dwelling fish and amphibians) were declining in the ‘poor-health’ reserves (in fact, about 20 of the guilds have been declining), and those known to respond favourably to disturbance (e.g., diseases, lianas & vines, exotic species) have been increasing.

How could all this be happening in so many of our protected areas and parks?

Well, we looked at the drivers, too. Parks with active on-the-ground management over the last 30 years to fight things such as invasive species, fire and deforestation, certainly did better; if there ever was a better justification for investing in protected area management, I’m unaware of it.

More importantly though, we found that the land-use changes outside the protected areas were ultimately responsible for their health. If the region surrounding a protected area had suffered from high deforestation, mining, illegal human colonists and hunting, then the chances were higher that the biodiversity within was declining.

In other words, protected areas do not act as islands buffered from the sea of degradation surrounding them. What we do around them, we do to them to a large degree.

Although we only had only one datum from Australia in our sample (Mt. Spec in Paluma Range National Park, north Queensland), the trends we observed are indeed occurring broadly across our tropics as well. Our largest national park, Kakadu, is a particularly good example of a struggling protected area. The region as a whole is rife with feral animals, the bushfire burning frequency is too high, and the lack of coordinated, regional-scale management is making matters worse.

Now, I know what some of the more spiteful libertarians might think that because so many protected areas are struggling to conserve the biodiversity they were created to protect, we should abandon the idea and let development proceed uninhibited. Of course, that is (as is typical of the libertarian) a monstrously stupid idea.

We showed that with active management and a history of lighter environmental footprints surrounding protected areas, tropical protected areas do just fine. Globally, we still have a huge gap between the areas now protected and what should be protected, and our policies surrounding the interstitial habitats between protected areas is way too lax. If we continue to add protected areas and manage them and their surrounds well, we’ll be successful at protecting a good component of our biodiversity.

Let’s hope we can continue to improve.

I’ve also embedded above a little video interview promo Bill and I did up (thanks to Mike ‘Fang’ Seyfang) a few weeks ago in preparation for the paper’s online appearance. It is a little teaser for the paper, with a full video interview coming online later.

I’m sure Bill will be going guns with the media today, and I’m available for comment too (although I’m overseas at the moment).

CJA Bradshaw



20 responses

31 01 2018
Drivers of protected-area effectiveness in Africa |

[…] itself is not necessarily indicative of biodiversity erosion in any given area (for that, you need measures of species trends, etc.), it is arguably one of the most important drivers of species loss […]


1 09 2017
Which countries protect the most of their land? |

[…] corrupt government officials in cahoots with extractive industries like logging or mining, then the park does not do well in protecting the species it was designed to safeguard. So, even though the proportion of area protected within a country is not a perfect reflection of […]


9 10 2015
To spare or to share, that is a muddled question |

[…] land sharing. Conversely, and as I myself (and with my great colleagues, of course) have shown, what happens outside reserves can be just as important as what happens within for the fate of biodiversity that reserves are meant to protect. In that case, good […]


16 06 2015
National commitment to conservation brings biodiversity benefits |

[…] can read all the gory details of the 216-author paper in Nature here, or an expurgated version in this blog post). While surveys aren’t necessarily the best ways to track biodiversity, we demonstrated that […]


2 03 2015
Social and economic value of protected areas |

[…] areas for the preservation of biodiversity – for them, it’s a given. While the effectiveness of protected areas globally is highly variable in that regard, there’s little contention among conservationists that we do not yet have […]


26 08 2014
An update on the ‘Biodiversity Arks’ paper - Environment Institute

[…] Visit Corey Bradshaw’s blog […]


7 02 2014
Incentivise to keep primary forests intact |

[…] magnitude and quality to preserve biodiversity. From my own work and that of colleagues, even protected areas are under siege and can by no means ensure biodiversity maintenance. I therefore see the most promising innovation […]


13 09 2013
Conservation: So easy a child could do it |

[…] we do our best to protect what’s there, clearly it isn’t working. For example, over half of tropical protected areas are still losing their biodiversity, and Australia’s largest national park is experiencing a pathetic collapse of its […]


18 07 2013
Guilty until proven innocent |

[…] to arrest the global decline of biodiversity, and even our protected areas are gasping, with about half of tropical protected areas losing their biodiversity, and national reserve systems [at least, in Australia] dying a death of a thousand cuts. It’s […]


13 05 2013
Learning from danger |

[…] W. F. et al. (2012). Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature, 489: […]


15 11 2012
Protected areas work, but only when you put in the effort «

[…] this post was the take-home message of the ZSL symposium. There I gave a 25-minute talk summarising our recent paper on the performance of tropical protected areas around the globe, and added a few extra analyses in the process. One interesting result that was […]


15 10 2012
Nibbles: Aspergillus domestication, Aurochs resynthesis, Drought resistance, Protected areas, Ford Denison, Ancient diets

[…] protected areas don’t work terribly well. Here comes the […]


1 10 2012
Why do conservation scientists get out of bed? «

[…] protected areas failing […]


20 08 2012
An update on the ‘Biodiversity Arks’ paper « The Environment Institute

[…] Visit Corey Bradshaw’s blog Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterStumbleUponRedditDiggPrintLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]


30 07 2012
New Paper: Avoiding a biodiversity collapse in tropical forest areas « The Environment Institute

[…] Please visit senior author Corey Bradshaw’s blog […]


27 07 2012

And a snapshot of some of the twitter tweetage here:


26 07 2012

See some of the media hits on the paper aggregated here.


26 07 2012

Thanks, Chris. I guess because (a) most people assume, despite the evidence to the contrary, that parks ‘work’ for biodiversity; therefore, there’s no need to do anything, and (b) there’s no evil industry to fight. No one wants to say bad things about protected areas because we’d be REALLY screwed without them; rather, people just stick their heads in the sand and hope it’ll turn out for the best.


26 07 2012
Chris Haynes

Well put, as usual, Corey.

One thing that has always puzzled me as a long term professional conservation manager (responsible for Kakadu’s development and management for 9 of its 33 year life and Director of National Parks in Western Australia for 9 years as well) is the general lack of interest by most of the peak conservation NGOs. Sure, we now have several private bodies doing great work but the critical thinking being developed by you guys is hardly making a ripple in the political arena. It’s time these findings got some traction and REAL ACTION from at least the governments that can afford it – e.g. in Australia.

It seems to me that we have to start getting the persistent interest of the likes of Don Henry to keep governments on their toes. And not be able to get away with SAYING they are doing research when all they are really doing is MONITORING the decline over which they are presiding, as is happening at Kakadu at the moment. Your post of about two years ago drew attention to John Woinarski’s excellent paper on severe species decline (and that was only of the ‘common’ spp, not those for which Kakadu was ascribed on the World Heritage list, the endemics that were too uncommon to be picked up in John’s systematic monitoring on randomly located plots). That failed to get much attention – and yet John plotted a well argued course to look for the determining agents.

Can anyone tell me why the peak conservation NGOs are taking so little interest? Perhaps we are not talking in the right way to them?


26 07 2012
Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas | a blog by Mike Seyfang

[…] an introduction to a paper published in Nature today. This very brief (1:49) ‘teaser’ is taken from a […]


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