Post World Parks Congress Reflections: Thinking Outside the Box of Protected Areas

The establishment of protected areas has been one of the great achievements of the modern conservation movement. The Protected Planet Pavilion at the World Parks Congress (WPC) in Sydney highlighted its World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) that displays over 9,612 marine and 200,589 terrestrial areas under some protection designation. As shown by these large numbers, protected areas have become the mainstream conservation action and they are still proliferating around the world.

 At the WPC, the governments of Gabon, Madagascar, South Africa and Russia among others, pledged to substantially increase the quantity and coverage of their national protected areas. One of thereasons for this proliferation, as explained by Dr. Nicholas Robinson of the Pace Law School to our International Organizations and Conferences class at Yale F&ES, is that the creation of protected areas is the most effective way for governments to show their compromise to conservation in their countries without having to financially support other efforts outside their state boundaries.


World Database on Protected Areas  <>

Aside from the financial benefits of establishing protected areas in comparison to other efforts, protected areas are trusted to work because they fit into the logic that more protected territory equals more habitat and therefore healthier wildlife populations. This logic was defended by several groups at the WPC, including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) that organized their Congress agenda around the idea that protected areas are the last bastions for biodiversity conservation.

Despite how important protected areas are, a few decades ago conservationists realized that protected areas were not the silver bullet of conservation. The evidence for this argument was that wildlife species were plummeting regardless of the exponential increase in protected areas around the world. There are several reasons for this continuous decline. Among the main ones is the prevalence of wildlife crime, which despite its importance, was not a very popular theme at the WPC. Wildlife trafficking is increasing, fueled by the demand for wildlife products of highly endangered species. The conversations at WPC centered on the fact that poaching has become a highly technical activity, usually associated with larger criminal circles at a global scale including drugs and human trafficking. Poachers are now better equipped than park rangers, and more importantly, they are becoming smarter about their industry, accessing peer review articles and obtaining the best knowledge available about species distributions and behaviors.

But perhaps a more critical cause for the crashing of wildlife populations is encroachment of protected areas by human activities, mainly agriculture and livestock production. Encroachment has isolated protected areas and converted them into fragmented forest islands within vast oceans of human dominated landscapes. Species that are constrained to protected areas face threats from connectivity loss and diminished genetic variability, with tragic consequences for their long-term survival. Although protected areas remain the core of conservation, rescuing species from extinction will require a lot more than protected area increase.

Edgeton Park

Image showing the boundary of Egmont National Park, Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center <>

Mustering efforts into a landscape approach to conservation will be essential for the future of conservation. A landscape approach involves integrating the mosaic of human dominated land uses into conservation. Its key objective is to increase the connectivity of wildlife species by creating corridors that allow them to move between protected areas and across landscapes that have been severely transformed. Undertaking this challenge requires a deep understanding of landscape ecology and restoration, but more importantly, it requires the support and collaboration of the people that are present in the landscape and whose lands will be used for conservation.

Conservation must therefore become attractive for those people, and the only way to achieve that depends on generating social, economic and political benefits for those who agree to contribute. Besides offering financial incentives, conservation landscapes must create a sense of ownership and pride in local participants. Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs), which were stated in Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, are an opportunity for creating such local appropriation of conservation. Ranging from private areas to indigenous territories, OECMs constitute different forms of land tenure and management that could potentially join protected areas to consolidate larger conservation landscapes. Because OECMs diversify governance structures, they have the potential to add new players into conservation and to innovate and improve forms of environmental management.

The Governance Stream at WPC reflected on the challenges of implementing OECMs given the current lack of clarity on what they are and how they can be beneficial for conservation. After all, different forms of land tenure including indigenous territories do not necessarily mean pro-conservation attitudes in the long term. There is much debate happening around how to generate compromise from the people to conserve, and how to include those compromises into larger protected area networks. Thus, defining, systematizing, and adopting OECMs at the landscape level will become one of the main challenges and opportunities for conservation professionals in the decade to come before the next WPC.


Palm oil

Converted palm oil landscape in Central Sumatra, Indonesia