11 Apr 2019

Study: Could new government targets drive better nature conservation?

In 2010, governments around the world committed to protecting at least 17% of land areas and 10% of marine areas by 2020. It’s a goal that’s likely to be met, but will this be effective for the species and sites that are most at risk?

Lo Go Xa Mat in Vietnam was identified as an Important Bird/Biodiveristy Area, then protected as a National Park © Tucky Piyapong
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

A new paper published in the journal Science criticizes current incentives for governments to create protected areas, and calls for a new approach to encourage nations to safeguard biodiversity.

Authored by lead scientists from BirdLife international, IUCN and other NGOs and universities, the study specifically critiques a target set in 2010 to increase the percentage of land and sea areas designated as protected and conserved areas. The paper expresses concern that this target has incentivised the establishment of protected areas in locations unsuitable for human use (particularly agriculture or fisheries) but also that are of low importance for biodiversity. Furthermore, many protected areas are inadequately managed or resourced, being essentially “paper parks”, but still count towards achievement of the percentage target. The study therefore proposes a shift to focusing on the benefits to nature that protected areas are intended to deliver, and suggests a new target for the global biodiversity framework that governments are developing for the next decade.

“Protected areas form the cornerstone of conservation efforts,” says Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International. “It is critical that governments designate them in the most important locations for nature, and manage them appropriately. The new wording and approach we propose would help to incentivise this, and shift the focus towards the outcomes for biodiversity that we aim to achieve through protected areas, rather than focusing simplistically on their total extent.”

The current incentive for protecting areas comes from targets determined a decade ago during the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, a city in the Aichi prefecture of Japan. During the convention, 196 nations agreed to a series of actions dedicated to conserving biodiversity – colloquially known as the Aichi Targets. The targets include raising awareness of how crucial and how vulnerable biodiversity is, halving the loss of natural habitats, and effectively conserving 17% of land/inland water areas and 10% of marine/coastal areas by 2020.

Unlike many of the other targets, these percentage thresholds for protected areas are likely to be met by 2020. However, we are not on track to conserve the most important sites for biodiversity around the world, nor to ensure that these areas are effectively managed and well connected. The authors argue that the biodiversity value of all sites of global significance for nature (because of the species or ecosystems they support) should be retained or restored through protected areas and other effective area-based conservation approaches.

Recently, a global standard was published for defining which sites are of significance for the global persistence of biodiversity. Locations qualify as ‘Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs)’ if they support threatened or geographically-restricted species or ecosystems, critical biological processes (such as migration), or have high ecological integrity or irreplaceability. The standard, and the current network of KBAs, builds heavily on the approach developed by BirdLife International over the last four decades for identifying important sites for conserving the world’s birds.

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To track progress towards the new target, the paper’s authors call for systematic monitoring of KBAs and other important sites for nature, to assess whether their biodiversity significance is being maintained or lost. This will require a combination of remote sensing of land cover using satellites and observations ‘on the ground’.

“While there is already considerable momentum behind efforts to set a higher percentage area threshold for protected area networks by 2030, this work shows how important it is that protected areas are appropriately located and effectively managed,” says Melanie Heath, Director of Science, Policy and Information at BirdLife international. “The Key Biodiversity Area network, encompassing BirdLife’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, can readily be used by governments to identify key locations for expanding or designating new protected areas, and to monitor their effectiveness.”