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13.2: Classification of Protected Areas

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    Protected areas vary greatly in how they are managed. For some, particularly those that protect very sensitive and/or recovering wildlife populations and ecosystems, human activity—even activities, such as photography, hiking, or bird watching (which can cause trampling and disturb shy animals)—may at times need to be forbidden except for specially arranged guided tours. For others, extraction of natural resources may be permitted albeit regulated.

    To distinguish how protected areas are managed, the IUCN developed six categories to classify protected areas based on how the land is used (Table 13.1). Of these categories, the first five can be defined as true protected areas, because the environment is managed primarily for biological diversity. The sixth category, Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources, refers to extractive reserves that are managed primarily for the sustainable production of natural resources, such as timber and grazing lands. Nevertheless, extractive reserves can play an important role in conservation: (1) they frequently protect much larger areas than do other types of protected areas; (2) they still provide habitat for many species that were present pre-extraction; and (3) they often border and can thus provide a buffer around, and wildlife linkage between, category I–V protected areas.

    Managers of extractive reserves must seek balance between the harvest of natural resources and risking environmental degradation from unsustainable practices.

    Table 13.1 Description of Categories I–VI of the IUCN’s classification of protected areas.




    Strict nature reserve

    Managed strictly for biodiversity conservation. Serves as reference sites for research and monitoring. Human visitations and impacts highly regulated.


    Wilderness area

    Generally large and relatively unmodified natural areas without significant human habitations. Managed to preserve the area’s natural character and ecological integrity.


    National Park

    Large natural areas set aside for protection of biodiversity and ecosystem processes. Also managed to support human activities (spiritual, education, scientific, recreation) compatible with biodiversity protection.


    National monument of feature

    Managed to protect a natural feature (e.g. seamount, geological feature, ancient grove) with outstanding cultural and/or natural significance. Can cover a small area, and often have high visitor value.


    Habitat/species management area

    Protected area dedicated to the protection of a specific species of habitat. May at times required regular and active intervention to ensure primary management goals are met


    Protected landscape/seascape

    An area with a significant natural or cultural value, created by the interaction between people and nature. Managed to safeguard the interactions that sustains the area’s value. Often act as model for sustainability


    Managed-resource protected area

    Managed primarily for the low-level, non-industrial, sustainable use of natural resources. Generally large, with most of its ecosystems intact.

    Source: After Dudley, 2008

    It is important to note that not all protected areas are covered under the IUCN’s six-category system. Prominently are RAMSAR wetlands (Section 12.1.2) which are not incorporated under formal protected areas, but still protected under international law. Other examples include locally-managed marine areas and indigenous reserves, some of which are as effectively managed as formal protected areas. The IUCN is currently working on a new classification, called ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECM; IUCN WCPA, 2018), to officially recognize the contribution of areas falling outside formal protected area networks to biodiversity conservation efforts.

    This page titled 13.2: Classification of 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.