13.0: Prelude to The Importance of Protected Areas
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With its rich biological diversity, Africa plays a critical role in global conservation efforts. Yet, many of the continent’s most threatened species and ecosystems continue to face an uncertain future. In light of increasing human populations that need an increasing amount of natural resources each year, safeguarding the region’s biodiversity is a major challenge. One of the best ways to meet this challenge is to designate protected areas—regions where human activities are regulated or, at times, even prohibited by law.
Protecting existing wild populations in their natural ecosystems not only protects ecological communities and interactions, but also natural processes and ecosystem services.
Biodiversity conservation is most effective when we maintain healthy, functioning, and intact ecosystems. Although it is true that many species and populations live outside protected areas, and some wildlife populations (Craigie et al., 2010) and natural communities (Lindsey et al., 2014) are declining even when protected, well-managed protected areas continue to be the most effective method to safeguard biodiversity (Brooks et al., 2009; Ihwagi et al., 2015). Illustrating the point, a global meta-analysis, which included 952 locations across Sub-Saharan Africa, found that wildlife populations are 15% larger and species richness is 11% higher inside protected areas compared to populations directly outside (Gray et al., 2016). Differences may be even starker at individual sites: tea fields on Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains held only 8% of the bird species present in the adjacent protected forest (Newmark, 2008), while some vultures in Eswatini now exclusively breed in protected areas (Monadjem and Garcelon, 2005). Studies from Tanzania have also shown how wildlife in protected areas are more resilient to climate change (Beale et al., 2013a), because habitat loss and fragmentation occur at four times their respective rates outside protected areas relative to inside them (see also Potapov et al., 2017). Consequently, until such a time that we can live more sustainably on unprotected lands, protected areas will remain an important cornerstone in our efforts to protect biodiversity. But how do we know what or where to protect, how much to protect, or how to effectively manage a protected area?