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13.1: Establishing Protected Areas

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    Figure 13.1 Land clearing and agricultural development pushes right up to the eastern edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. It is important for protected areas—and zones within those areas—to have clearly defined boundaries to avoid confusion on where and how human activities are regulated. Photograph by Jason Houston/USAID,, CC0.

    A protected area is “a clearly defined geographical space (Figure 13.1), recognized, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values” (Dudley, 2008). Given this broad definition, it comes as no surprise that governments, organizations, and local communities use a variety of mechanisms to establish protected areas. The most popular of these mechanisms are:

    • Government action, which can occur at a national, regional, or local level.
    • Community-based initiatives by local people and traditional groups.
    • Land purchases and holdings by private individuals and organizations.
    • Protected areas established through co-management agreements.
    • Development of biological field stations or marine laboratories.

    Government protected areas

    Government actions are generally considered the most secure form of protection because they involve passage of laws and buy-in from multiple levels of society. Of course, legislation establishing a protected area does not guarantee that the species and ecosystems therein are adequately preserved. Small populations, especially those living in small protected areas, often require active management (Section 8.7.5) to ensure their continued survival. Another concern is that laws protecting national parks and other wildlife sanctuaries are not strictly enforced, leading to so-called paper parks—parks that appear on official government lists, but with wildlife monitoring, law enforcement, and ecosystem management lacking on the ground (Laurance et al., 2012). However, government-sanctioned protected areas do lay a solid foundation for partnerships among governments, international conservation organizations, multinational banks, research institutes, and educational organizations. Such partnerships can bring together funding, training, and scientific and management expertise to maximise the potential value of those protected areas.

    Community conserved areas

    In many areas, local people already protect biological communities, forests, wildlife, rivers, and coastal waters in the vicinity of their homes. Protection on these community conserved areas is enforced by village elders and councils to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources such as food supplies and drinking water. Natural areas have also been set aside by royal families and churches to provide a space for spiritual activities (see Box 2.1) and sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants (see Box 5.2). Because human activities are highly restricted in these sacred spaces, they provide an important refuge for biodiversity. Today, an increasing number of traditional communities link cultural advocacy directly to conservation through the establishment of protected areas on their lands as a safeguard against developments that would compromise their way of living. Other communities establish protected areas to attract tourists and ensure the protection of special wildlife. One such example is the Iyondji Bonobo Community Reserve in the DRC, which protects bonobos (Pan paniscus, EN), forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), as well as one of the world’s most enigmatic birds, the Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis, VU) (Dupain et al., 2013).

    Traditional communities may link cultural advocacy to conservation by establishing protected areas as a safeguard against developments that would compromise their way of living.

    Privately protected areas

    Over the last few decades, many African countries have adopted a more Western form of land tenure under private ownership. Wealthy individuals or groups of people have taken advantage of this opportunity by acquiring large tracts of land for ecotourism purposes (de Vos et al., 2019). Because the ecotourism potential of these privately protected areas depends on how well the property is managed (Clements et al., 2016), private landowners often invest considerable effort to maintain and even increase wildlife populations on their land. Privately protected areas have unique advantages over government-protected areas. For example, they have local buy-in from landowners and their employees by design; this is often a significant stumbling block for government-protected areas. Private sites could also employ innovative funding mechanisms that allow them to fast-track land acquisition, perhaps in response to threats such as development. In some areas, privately protected areas may even employ more people, pay better wages, and contribute more to local economies that government protected areas (Sims-Castley et al., 2005). Privately protected areas can, therefore, play a significant role in overall conservation efforts (see Box 2.3), particularly in areas where threatened species (Cousins et al., 2010) and ecosystems (Gallo et al., 2009) are underrepresented in government-protected areas.

    Because the ecotourism potential of private protected areas depends on how they are managed, landowners prioritize maintaining and even increasing wildlife populations on their land.

    Despite the advantages of privately protected areas, we must also consider the drawbacks. Like many community conserved areas, privately protected areas are not permanently protected by the same mechanisms and oversight as government protected areas are. Ownership and management style can also change at the whim of the landowner, or perhaps the heirs. At times, management practices may be detrimental to the species and ecosystems these privately protected areas claim to protect, for example, through introduction of invasive species and harmful breeding practices (Milner et al., 2007), and by resisting regulatory controls (Cousins et al., 2010). Innovative strategies will thus be required to ensure that these areas do contribute to biodiversity protection, which include education, support, and methods that balance financial gains with conservation goals.

    Co-managed protected areas

    Local people who support conservation and the protection of their local natural resources are often inspired to take the lead in protecting their local biodiversity. Governments and conservation organizations can assist such initiatives by allowing local people to access specialist expertise and obtain financial assistance to develop conservation and ecotourism infrastructure. These conservation areas, characterized by partnerships between different levels of society that share decision-making responsibilities and consequences of management actions, have been termed co-managed protected areas. Tanzania, where the management of more than two million hectares of forests and woodlands have been transferred to local groups (Blomley et al., 2019), has been particularly active in this regard. One of the biggest strengths of co-management is that, with proper consultation and engagement, it avoids eco-colonialism—the unfortunate practice by some governments and conservation organizations of disregarding the rights and practices of local people during the establishment and management of new conservation areas or environmental laws and regulations.

    Contractual parks offer a good model on how to avoid eco-colonialism. These protected areas are established and managed through agreements with private or communal landowners whose land forms part of a protected area (usually a national park). This not only allows a larger area to be protected, but also allows local people to benefit from biodiversity conservation through benefit sharing and job generation initiatives. Contractual parks play an important role, especially in South Africa, where it is used as a tool to meet both conservation goals and restitution of previously dispossessed land. One such example is the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld TFCA (Figure 13.2), which protects a huge number of succulent plant species and a variety of desert ecosystems at the border between Namibia and South Africa. Much of this national park is make up of communal lands, with the landowners—the local Nama people—having co-management and benefit-sharing agreements with the South African government (Reid et al., 2004). Incorporating activities of the landowners in sections of the park enriches tourism experiences, such as boating, hiking, and birdwatching, and contributes to preserving the Namas’ cultural identity, pastoral lifestyle, and threatened local languages (Chennels, 1999).

    Figure 13.2 A lone giant quiver tree (Aloidendron pillansii, CR) stands guard over a desert valley in |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld TFCA, on the border between South African and Namibia. This TFCA is special in that it is an agreement park, established through the cooperation between governments and private landowners. Photograph by Vincent van Oosten,, CC0.

    Field stations and marine laboratories

    Biological field stations and marine laboratories are a special kind of protected area that provide a dedicated stable space for scientists, students, and even the general public to pursue research projects on all kinds of natural phenomena in an intact environment (Tydecks et al., 2016). By facilitating collaboration and long-term observation, work done at field stations in Africa has led to several fundamental scientific advances, including improved understanding of environmental responses to climate change and acid rain, as well as advances in social development through conservation activities. Today, there are biological field stations in at least 24 Sub-Saharan African countries (Tydecks et al., 2016). Among them are Namibia’s Gobabeb Research and Training Centre which focuses on desert conservation, Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre (Box 13.1) which investigates the potential for wildlife and livestock to coexist, Nigeria’s A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (see Box 15.4) which focuses on bird conservation, and Uganda’s Makerere University Biological Field Station which has a long, distinguished record of primate research.

    Box 13.1 Mpala Research Centre: A Living Laboratory for (More than Just) Scientists

    Anchal Padukone and Dino J. Martins

    Mpala Research Centre,

    Nanyuki, Kenya.

    In the heart of Kenya’s Laikipia district, Mpala Conservancy stretches over 200 km2 of semi-arid savannah, acacia bushland, wooded grassland, rocky escarpments and riverine communities along the Ewaso Nyiro and Ewaso Narok rivers. The area is home to an abundance of wildlife, including all the classic savannah mammals: impala (Aepyceros melampus, LC), Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti, LC), reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata, EN), leopards (Panthera pardus, VU), lions (P. leo, VU), spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta, LC), and some of the largest savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana, VU) and African wild dog (Lycaon pictus, EN) populations in Kenya. There are also a few species typical of the northern regions of the Somali-Maasai centre of endemism, such as Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi, EN) and gerenuk (Litocranius walleri, NT). Mpala also functions as a working cattle ranch, with upwards of 2,000 cattle, camels, and sheep that are available for use by researchers.

    This “multiple use” landscape and its neighbouring ranches provide exceptional opportunities for researchers to study interactions among humans, their domestic herds and wildlife in an area where they coexist. Since much of East Africa’s wildlife is found in similar areas outside formal protection, such research could provide essential and widely applicable knowledge for conservation efforts. They will be particularly important as conservation managers will increasingly have to balance wildlife and rangeland management needs to remain effective, in a context of human population growth and economic development. The Mpala Research Centre, established here in 1994, attracts hundreds of scientists every year who use this “living laboratory” to pursue projects varying in scope from the population biology of individual species to community-level dynamics and ecosystem functioning (Rubenstein and Rubinoff, 2014).

    Having a research station in this area facilitates long-term and large-scale field experiments, including the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (KLEE). The 18 KLEE plots are designed to keep out different groups of animals: some plots only exclude megaherbivores (e.g. elephants and giraffes); others exclude all large herbivores; still others only exclude domestic cattle, among other combinations. This allows for controlled studies of the effects of different groups of herbivores on the vegetation and on each other. This research reveals that while domestic stock and wild grazers compete for forage during the dry season, the presence of zebras enhances cattle weight gain during the wet season—perhaps because zebras consume dead grass parts, improving forage quality for cattle (Riginos et al., 2012). Other studies at Mpala have also shown that wildlife and livestock can coexist and facilitate each other’s success, given the right approaches in management (Odadi et al., 2011; Ogutu et al. 2016).

    Another long-time focus of research at Mpala is the threatened Grevy’s zebra. Dr. Daniel Rubenstein (Princeton University) and his research group examine the influence of environmental features on competitive behavior and reproductive patterns in plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra. In turn, they are interested in how these social processes influence zebra population size. Their findings have the potential to inform management strategies in areas where Grevy’s numbers are too low to be self-sustaining (Rubenstein, 2010).

    Involving the non-scientific community, especially those living around conservancies, is crucial to the long-term success of conservation efforts. Recognising this, Mpala has hosted several citizen science initiatives. For example, The Great Grevy’s Rally was a photographic census that relied on inputs from both scientists and members of the public, who travelled to conservancies, such as Mpala, to take pictures of every Grevy’s zebra they could find. Researchers processed these images using the Image Based Ecological Information System (IBEIS, to differentiate individuals using their stripe patterns. This allows them to determine population size and structure, and assess whether zebra numbers are stable, increasing, or decreasing.

    Figure 13.A Participants in the Kid’s Twiga Tally trying to differentiate individual giraffes using photos to understand how the IBEIS software works. Photograph by Danielle Martin, CC BY 4.0.

    Also hosted at Mpala, the Kids Twiga Tally (Kahumbu et al., 2016) was a similar “sight-resight” survey of reticulated giraffes that relied on IBEIS software to distinguish between individuals and determine population structure. Its 70 young participants (Figure 13.A) came from both city schools and nearby pastoralist communities, spanning a range of socio-economic backgrounds. After spending two days taking pictures of giraffes on GPS-enabled cameras, the children returned to their schools having contributed meaningfully to conservation science.

    This page titled 13.1: Establishing Protected Areas is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.