The realization that global biodiversity is seriously threatened by human activities emerged as a primary international concern in the 1970s, although the history of human efforts to protect rare species is much older.
National Parks and Biodiversity Conservation
In the United States, efforts were made to prevent the extinction of the American bison at the end of the 1800s. Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, was established in 1872, and it provided habitat to the only wild bison herd during that era. In 1900, the U.S. federal government passed the Lacey Act, which forbade interstate commerce in illegally harvested animals or their body parts, and likely helped prevent the extermination of snowy egrets and other birds that were being harvested for their feathers.
The national park system in the United States grew rapidly during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its model for protecting nature was to draw a boundary around a particular area and restrict human uses within it. Most early parks were focused on places with geological, not biological, wonders, so they weren’t especially good at protecting biodiversity, but they established an important model for nature protection.
With adequate enforcement, the national park model can be very effective for conserving biodiversity, but it also raises questions of social justice. Even during the 1800s when the first parks were established, local residents complained about lost access to resources because of the restrictions that parks imposed. Among those most disenfranchised were Native American groups, such as the Blackfeet of Montana who lived within today’s Glacier National Park; they were told they were no longer allowed to do traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering within the park boundaries. Despite the social injustices that were a part of the U.S. national park movement, this model of nature conservation was adopted by many European nations that established national parks in their African colonies. Below, you will learn about efforts to balance biodiversity protection in key areas with the needs of humans who live nearby, and those efforts stem from social justice concerns about the original “fortress” model for nature conservation exemplified by national parks.
These early efforts were quite minimal compared to the global boom in protected areas since the 1960s. Today, there are over 100,000 individual protected areas that cover about 12% of the Earth’s total land surface. Over half of this area was protected just in the last decade.
Within the field of geography, particularly in a subfield called political ecology, there has been a lot of research in protected areas on the issue of balancing biodiversity protection with human needs. Political ecologists have looked at the political and economic interests of humans in protected areas, and how those interests relate to biodiversity and other ecological processes. The establishment of a new protected area invokes social justice concerns about the way that the fortress model of conservation displaces local people from their land and resources. At the same time, some parks have been operational for over 100 years and have their own unique set of political and ecological issues. An example can be seen in Yosemite National Park, where park visitation levels have become so high that efforts are underway by park managers to establish a park “capacity” for visitation to certain parts of the park with the goal of limiting human impacts on ecological processes (recall the “carrying capacity” concept from Module 2). As visitation to protected areas increases, the interface between environmental protection and levels of visitation becomes increasingly complex, and innovative management strategies are required to meet the given objective of a protected area.
IUCN Protected Area Categories
It’s important to remember, however, that protected areas receive very different levels of protection, and may have many more purposes than simply protecting biodiversity. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified six different levels of protected areas:
Category 1: Strict Nature Reserves. These areas restrict motorized vehicles and extractive uses. They may be open to indigenous people for traditional gathering and hunting, but, in most cases, the only human activities are scientific research and monitoring and low-impact recreation. The federal wilderness system in the United States, established in 1964, is an example of this kind of reserve.
Category 2: National Parks. These are areas intended to balance ecosystem protection with human recreation, which is often a very difficult mandate for the managing agency to achieve. Extractive uses in these areas are prohibited. Many national parks, such as Tubbataha National Park in the Philippines, are sources of ecotourism income as well as breeding grounds for commercially important species. One problem with national parks in many developing countries is that there is little or no enforcement of regulations. One study showed that only 1% of parks in Africa and Latin America have adequate enforcement. We might think of these as “paper parks” that exist on a map but, in reality, are not protected.
Category 3: Natural Monuments. Protecting interesting natural or cultural features is the goal in these areas, but they are smaller than the areas in the two previous categories.
Category 4: Habitat/Species Management Areas. These are areas that are relatively heavily utilized by humans for agriculture or forestry but have been designated as important habitats for a particular species or natural community. Management plans and continual monitoring are important components to ensure that conservation goals are achieved.
Category 5: Protected Landscape/Seascape. These areas are intended to protect historically important interactions between people and nature. Examples include traditional farming areas, homelands of indigenous peoples, and significant religious landscapes. Endemic and rare species in these regions are often best protected by maintaining the traditional human land uses that have existed alongside them for many generations.
Category 6: Managed Resource Protected Area. Similar to Category 5, these areas are managed for the long-term sustainable use by humans. In the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area in northern Tanzania, Masai pastoralists graze cattle on most of the land while living alongside Africa’s largest concentrations of megafauna.
One system of protected areas that has become particularly important for conserving biodiversity is “Biosphere Reserves.” In 1971, The United Nations’ Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started the Man and the Biosphere Programme. Its major focus has been building a network of biosphere reserves. There are over 400 reserves in almost 100 countries today. Each reserve has to be large enough to contain three different “zones”: (1) a core area where the national government restricts essentially all human activities except scientific monitoring and research, (2) a buffer zone where tourist recreation and local resident usage for agriculture, sustainable logging, grazing, hunting, and fishing are allowed, as long as they don’t threaten the core area, and (3) a transition zone where more intensive uses of land are permitted. This model seeks to balance the needs of humans and the biosphere, as its name implies.
If you were designing a set of protected areas with the goal of preserving biodiversity, here are a few concepts that you would want to keep in mind:
Comprehensiveness: Include samples of different types of habitats and ecological processes.
Representativeness: It’s unlikely that you will be able to preserve much of each habitat type, so protect an area that is representative of the ecological processes contained within it.
Risk Spreading: Natural disasters, wars, or other disturbances can harm even the most well-protected areas, so it may be wise to not have all of your reserves connected and nearby each other.
Connectivity: On the other hand, maintaining connections between protected areas is very important for several reasons, including the dispersal of genetic material, the ability for migrating and wide-ranging species to persist, and the possibility for species to adapt to climate changes or adjust their ranges after disturbance events.
Examples of Biodiversity Conservation Practices
Of course, creating a theoretical set of protected areas is much easier than doing it in the real world, but here are several examples of how these ideas are being implemented or advocated for in different parts of the world.
Costa Rica is perhaps the best example of a biodiversity-rich country making a commitment to protecting its natural endowments. While it is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, it is home to about 500,000 plant and animal species. Though Costa Rica experienced very serious deforestation driven by cattle ranching during the 1960s and 1970s, it has worked for the last 30 years to protect about 25% of its land in national parks and other forms of reserves. The protected areas are designed to ensure the survival of at least 80% of Costa Rica’s remaining biodiversity. Efforts have been made to facilitate connectivity between reserves and to ensure that they are as representative as possible. Beyond the reserves, the Costa Rican government has also halted subsidies that encourage forest clearing and has encouraged investment in ecotourism. Today, tourism is the largest industry in Costa Rica, and is very substantially focused on activities within and surrounding these reserves. Tourism has become so popular that the Costa Rican government and conservation biologists are now concerned about the impacts that so many visitors are having on the country’s biodiversity. Nevertheless, Costa Rica remains an example of the benefits that protected areas can have for biodiversity and local economies.
But connectivity between reserves is often necessary on a larger than national scale, and that was the goal of advocates for the “Paseo Pantera” (Panther Path) in Central America. Now known as the “MesoAmerican Biological Corridor,” this system of protected areas and corridors stretches from Mexico to Panama.
The Rewilding Institute advocates for the creation of even large-scale connectivity between important ecosystems in North and Central America, focusing on the necessity for large carnivores like wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears to travel the long distances they require.
The primary goal of all of these corridor-based projects is to ensure landscape permeability, which means that even if a particular place is not designated as a protected area, wildlife is able to use the habitat and to travel freely through it. Elements that ensure landscape permeability include laws that regulate or restrict wildlife hunting or trapping, designing roads and railroads so that animals can cross safely, and establishing relationships between government wildlife agencies and local communities so that everyone feels that they benefit from protecting the biological integrity of the region.