We firmly believe that all biodiversity is important to all people, and that each nation should do everything possible to conserve its living natural heritage -- for both its own intrinsic values and the critical role it plays in long-term sustainable development.
CI considers parks and other protected areas to be the single most important means for nations to protect their biodiversity resources. Through scientific research, we have been able to pinpoint the major theaters of imminent extinctions, which are often within biodiversity hotspots
. We focus our efforts on these hotspots, which claim the largest number of endemic species
(species found nowhere else) and have already lost over 70 percent of their original vegetation. Complementing our emphasis on hotspots, we also work to conserve key marine ecosystems, as well as high-biodiversity wilderness areas
– vast, largely intact areas that also harbor high levels of diversity and endemics. Examples include the large tropical rainforest blocks of Amazonia
, the Congo Forest
region of Central Africa and the island of New Guinea
The biodiversity hotspots and high-biodiversity wilderness areas combined cover only 7.5 percent of the Earth's land surface but have within them an astounding 62 percent of all plants and at least 55 percent of all nonfish vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) as endemics. Clearly, to conserve biodiversity, these areas must receive a proportionately large share of the resources invested internationally in biodiversity conservation. Unless we focus on these areas, we will lose a major portion of global biodiversity regardless of how successful we are in other, less diverse areas.
Parks, reserves and other types of protected areas provide sanctuary for wildlife in our rapidly developing world, which has a human population
that is expected to grow from its current 6.2 billion to nearly 9 billion by the year 2050. Providing safe havens where development cannot destroy habitat will be essential to counter human-induced extinction trends.
Almost without exception, the most endangered animals and plants will not survive outside protected areas. These are the species with the most restricted ranges and the greatest degree of specialization, and they are very often also those charismatic species that stir both cultural affinities and deep affection. The strikingly beautiful golden lion tamarin and the northern muriqui, both endemic to Brazil's Atlantic Forest
, are examples. Others are the indri, Madagascar's largest lemur, and the giant panda
of central-western China.
The Atlantic Forest, Madagascar
and the Mountains of Southwest China
are among the biodiversity hotspots, where the need for protected areas is particularly strong. Only about 40 percent of the remaining intact natural areas in the hotspots are under some form of protection, representing a mere 4 percent of the original area of these ecosystems.
The World Parks Congress (WPC), convened by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and scheduled for September 7 to 17 in Durban, South Africa
, plays a unique role in spotlighting the importance of protected areas and the need to move quickly to better manage existing areas and to create new ones. Some 2,500 delegates, including park management professionals, government officials, scientists and indigenous group leaders, are expected to attend. With the theme "Benefits Beyond Boundaries," the WPC will focus on issues including the role of protected areas in alleviating poverty and achieving sustainable development and security. How protected areas adapt to global change -- biophysical, economic and social -- is another key area for discussion. The congress will issue recommendations that have the full backing of participants.
Held only once every 10 years, the event represents the most important global forum for action on improving parks and protected area systems around the world. In fact, we believe protected areas are such vital tools in today's world that it is no longer adequate to hold such an important gathering as the WPC only once a decade. We propose that the IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas change the frequency of this meeting to every 5 years and that we use these events not just to discuss new directions but also to monitor progress over the previous period.
Along with our goal of ensuring that biodiversity conservation is one of the principal objectives for the WPC, we will promote several other themes aimed toward strengthening the success of protected areas, as outlined in the following pages.
Create New Protected Areas
Although some feel that conservation should focus primarily on improving management of existing protected areas, we strongly believe that now is also the time to create new parks. Ten percent of Earth's land is currently within protected areas, but many of these areas were established for scenic values, not necessarily for biodiversity conservation.
An analysis carried out by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science
(CABS) at CI, documenting where protected areas need to be created for adequate biodiversity conservation, reveals that much needs to be done. CABS convened several dozen experts to perform this "gap analysis" specifically for the WPC to generate tangible goals for the international community.
The gap analysis is the first-ever study to use species as the basis for identifying major gaps in the coverage of protected areas worldwide. Given today's extinction rates, we have a brief window of opportunity before many plant and animal species are lost forever. Therefore, selection of new protected areas should be strongly based on biodiversity criteria, especially in areas like the hotspots.
In addition, protected areas need to be created at a variety of different levels, including federal, state and even municipal. In countries where federal agencies may feel overextended, states are often eager to create their own areas. Privately protected areas can play a significant role in increasing biodiversity coverage, with many models already in existence (such as The Nature Conservancy in the United States and the Private Natural Heritage Reserves network in Brazil
). Demarcated indigenous territories also need more attention as a form of protected area.
Simply put, when it comes to biodiversity conservation in the tropics, parks work. CABS research published in the journal Science
(January 5, 2001) shows that tropical parks are overwhelmingly achieving their conservation objectives, in spite of the fact that most are underfunded. This research confirms that parks are a vital tool to secure areas within rapidly advancing development frontiers.
Provide More Protection for Marine and Freshwater Systems
If terrestrial coverage is inadequate, marine protected area coverage is much more so. Only a fraction of a percentage of the oceans
is under protected status, and "no take zones," the equivalent of terrestrial parks and reserves, are ludicrously small. Sixty percent of the world's oceans are under no form of governance, let alone protection. As indicated during the recent CI-convened, international Defying Ocean's End conference, marine conservation efforts are a decade or more behind what has been done on land.
Protected area coverage for freshwater
systems, notably rivers and lakes, also lags behind and requires much further attention, especially given the growing importance and worldwide scarcity of freshwater resources.
Plan Parks at the Landscape Level
To secure their long-term ecological viability, protected areas need to be linked in broader landscapes through conservation corridors. The protected areas themselves must be considered the "core areas" or "anchors" around which such corridors should be developed, not as secondary to restoration of the intervening spaces.
Ensure Benefits to People Everywhere
Protected areas should not be seen as antithetical to poverty alleviation, but rather as an essential component of economic sustainability and healthy communities
. Stakeholders at all levels should be engaged in and benefit from protected area establishment and management, and all stakeholders must recognize their roles and responsibilities.
As key components of local development strategies, protected areas should be created and managed within a structured process that provides long-term benefits for all but does not diminish the value of parks and reserves for biodiversity protection and for future generations.
Engage the Global Community
Global funding for protected area management is woefully inadequate. More resources are needed for both short-term and long-term activities. Financial mechanisms such as trust funds should be considered to cover basic management costs in perpetuity. CI's Global Conservation Fund is among the few mechanisms that currently exist to further this approach, and more are needed.
In addition, the most important protected areas need higher public profiles through special recognition. More international groups should be involved in this effort, and they can do so through existing mechanisms. Among the most notable has been the World Heritage Convention, with the United Nations Foundation's emphasis on the importance of World Heritage Sites in biodiversity conservation especially welcome. We encourage additional international efforts to promote biologically significant protected areas.
Worldwide, professionals involved in protected area creation and management need to highlight more actively the importance of protected areas, demonstrating how they are cornerstones of global and regional development. This message should include the critical role of protected areas in maintaining key ecosystem services such as watershed integrity and carbon sequestration, as well as the vital importance of protected marine and freshwater ecosystems.
This special issue of Frontlines
illustrates some of CI's work to help create, expand and improve parks, reserves and other protected areas throughout the world. We look forward to the Durban World Parks Congress as a great step forward for the sustainable future of our planet, with results that can have a truly historical impact.