Half of the World's Most Important Sites for Nature Are Currently Unprotected


Study: Proportion of protected areas covering conservation priorities on land has declined annually since 1950

The world's governments have committed to increasing the coverage of protected areas by 2020 in order to address rapid rates of environmental destruction. However, a new study shows that only half of the most important sites for wildlife have been fully protected. These findings highlight the urgent need for improved targeting of new and expanded protected areas in order to best protect the planet's wildlife.

Cambridge, UK — Protected areas like national parks and community-managed nature reserves are a cornerstone of conservation efforts and now cover nearly 13 percent of the world's land surface. In 2010, the world's governments meeting in Nagoya, Japan committed to expanding this to 17 percent by 2020, with an emphasis on areas of particular importance for nature.

New research by over 40 scientists from almost 30 institutions, led by BirdLife International, has found that only half of these important areas are currently protected. The researchers discovered this trend by analysing the overlap between protected areas and two worldwide networks of important sites for wildlife: Important Bird Areas, which comprise more than 10,000 globally significant sites for conserving birds, and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, which include 600 sites holding the last remaining population of highly threatened vertebrates and plants.

"Sockingly, half of the most important sites for nature conservation have not yet been protected", said Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Research and Indicators Coordinator. "And only one-third to one-fifth of sites are completely protected — the remainder are only partially covered by protected areas. While coverage of important sites by protected areas has increased over time, the proportion of area covering important sites, as opposed to less important land for conservation, has declined annually since 1950."

"This is despite the fact that we found evidence that protection of important sites may slow the rate at which species are driven towards extinction: by 50 percent for birds with protection of at least half of the Important Bird Areas at which they occur, and by 30 percent for birds, mammals and amphibians restricted to protected areas compared with those restricted to unprotected or partially protected sites. By using the IUCN Red List Index to measure changes in the status of species, and linking this to the degree of protection for important conservation sites, we found good evidence that protected areas may play an important role in slowing the loss of biodiversity."

With governments having committed to halt the extinction of threatened species and to expand protected areas in both number and extent, they could achieve both of these aims and benefit local communities by focusing new protected areas on the networks of sites considered to be the most important places for wildlife. For example, establishment of a protected area on the Liben Plain in Ethiopia would help to safeguard the future of the Critically Endangered Liben Lark, which is found nowhere else. Similarly, the designation of a proposed biosphere reserve in the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti would protect 15 highly threatened frog species that are restricted to just this single site. In both cases, appropriate management would ensure that local communities also benefit from enhanced protection of these sites.

There are probably several reasons why recently designated protected areas have tended not to protect the most biologically important areas. For example, some sites may be chosen for their remoteness and lower suitability for agriculture, rather than because they can best mitigate the rapid and extensive land-use change that threatens most species. Other protected areas may have been targeted primarily at locations for recreation, tourism, hunting, scenery or cultural interest.

In addition to designating a comprehensive network of protected areas, governments need to ensure that these reserves are adequately managed. The team estimated that this would cost roughly US$23 billion per year: more than four times the current expenditure. However, in countries with low or moderately low incomes, increased management funding would require less than one-tenth of this sum, just double what is currently spent.

"Such sums may seem large, but they are tiny by comparison to the value of the benefits that people obtain from biodiversity. These 'ecosystem services', such as pollination of crops, water purification and climate regulation, have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year", said Butchart.

Important Bird Areas and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites represent existing, systematically identified global networks of significant sites for nature conservation. Adequately protecting and managing them would help to prevent extinctions, safeguard the benefits that people derive from these sites, and contribute towards countries meeting their international commitments on protected areas.

Dr. Frank Larsen, scientist with Conservation International who contributed to the study, said: "Since world leaders have agreed to increase the current protected areas from 13 percent to 17 percent of Earth's land by 2020, those four percentage points really needs to be focused on the unprotected sites that are the most important for nature. With the global population projected to skyrocket over the next 30 years, so will our demand for natural resources. Protecting those remaining pockets of nature will be crucial if we want to have food, water and a host of other vital benefits that that will allow us to survive and prosper."

"Some countries are already leading the way, with governments using Important Bird Area and Alliance for Zero Extinction site inventories to inform designation of protected areas, for example in Madagascar, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and in the European Union. We encourage other governments to follow these examples as they expand their protected area networks, thereby maximising the effectiveness of nature protection", concluded Butchart.


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Journal article: Butchart, SHM et al. (2010) Protecting Important Sites for Biodiversity Contributes to Meeting Global Conservation Targets. PLoS ONE.

For more information or interviews, contact:

Martin Fowlie
BirdLife International
+44 (0)1223 279813

Patricia Malentaqui
Conservation International
+1 703 341-2471

Note to editors:

BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working in more than 115 countries and territories that, together, to promote sustainable living as a means to conserve biodiversity.
Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are key sites for avian conservation, identified nationally, using globally standardised criteria, usually involving multiple stakeholders. They are delimited so that they are or can be managed for conservation, and do one (or more) of three things:

  • Hold significant numbers of one or more globally threatened bird species;
  • Are one of a set of sites that together hold a suite of restricted-range species or biome-restricted bird species;
  • Have exceptionally large numbers of migratory or congregatory bird species.
    Read more information on IBAs
    Find factsheets on individual IBAs.
  • The study analysed 10,993 IBAs in 218 countries, and found that 28 percent are completely covered by protected areas, 23 percent are partially protected and 49 percent are wholly unprotected.


The Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) is a partnership of 75 non-governmental biodiversity conservation organizations working together to prevent species extinctions. AZE sites are locations supporting at least 95 percent of the global population of at least one Endangered or Critically Endangered species, as listed on the IUCN Red List. Like IBAs, they have a definable boundary within which the character of habitats, biological communities, and/or management issues have more in common with each other than they do with those in adjacent areas. AZE sites have been identified globally for all mammals, birds, amphibians, selected reptile groups, conifers and corals. Learn more about AZE species and sites. The study analyzed 588 AZE sites that hold the last remaining populations of 919 highly threatened species, and found that 22 percent are completely covered by protected areas, 27 percent are partially protected and 51 percent are unprotected.

Protected Areas are places established and managed for long-term conservation of nature, ranging from government-designated protected areas to community-managed reserves. Over 150,000 protected areas have been designated to date, covering 12.9 percent of the earth's terrestrial surface outside Antarctica. Information on protected areas is managed in the World Database on Protected Areas, a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and IUCN, maintained at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre working with the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, governments and collaborating non-governmental organisations.

Governments have made commitments to address biodiversity loss through the Convention on Biological Diversity. At the Tenth Conference of the Parties in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010, the 193 Parties agreed a Strategic Plan which included 20 targets. These included Target 11 "By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes" and Target 12 "By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained".

About Conservation International (CI) — Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987 and marking its 25th anniversary in 2012, CI has headquarters in the Washington DC area, and 900 employees working in nearly 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the world. For more information, please visit at www.conservation.org , or on Facebook or Twitter.