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13.6: Managing Protected Areas

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    Many people today have a misconception that the job of a conservation manager is done once a protected area is established. This might have been true if nature were “in balance” (a flawed concept in today’s human-dominated world, see e.g. Pimm, 1991). However, reality is very different. In many cases, humans have modified the environment so much that important populations and ecosystem processes cannot be maintained without at least some intervention, even inside protected areas. It is also important to regulate the activities of people who enter protected areas, particularly those who feel that reserves and national parks are shared public spaces that should be open to hunting, fishing, logging, farming, or mining activities. If we ignore these threats by leaving protected areas unmanaged and regulations unenforced, the biodiversity they are supposed to protect will almost certainly be lost over time.

    Protected areas management should ideally be guided by a carefully-designed management plan assembled and regularly reviewed by a team of experts.

    Every single protected area on Earth requires some form of management to be effective. Ideally, a protected area’s management is guided by a carefully-designed management plan assembled and reviewed by a team of experts (Henschel et al., 2014). While the details of each protected area’s management plan will be different, important aspects to address include monitoring and maintaining complex and adaptive ecosystems (Chapter 10), managing threatened species (Chapter 11), and providing resources, training, and memorable experiences to local people and visitors (discussed below). Management plans should also address which activities are prohibited (e.g. hunting or campfires) which activities are encouraged (e.g. wildlife photography, citizen science projects), and how rules and regulations will be enforced (Chapter 12). Lastly, the best management plans have a system in place to ensure that goals and activities are regularly reviewed and updated to account for new knowledge and experiences, and changing priorities.

    In some protected areas, particularly small ones, it may be necessary to artificially maintain conditions that enable local wildlife to persist. One such example is the maintenance of natural fire regimes in fire-adapted ecosystems (Section 10.2.1). Another example is the temporary (or sometimes permanent) supply of limiting resources, such as exposed mineral licks, carcasses for scavengers, and nest boxes for bats and birds. Conservation managers might also establish artificial water sources or plant native fruit trees to support local (or translocated) wildlife. When taking such steps, it is important to strike a balance between establishing protected areas free from human influence and creating semi-natural areas in which plants and animals become so dependent on people that their persistence is not sustainable over the long term.

    Management actions are generally implemented without completely understanding how the action will influence local ecosystem processes and wildlife populations. In light of this uncertainty, and despite good intentions, it should come as no surprise that some management actions may not achieve conservation goals. Some management actions may even later show to have unintended consequences that harm local biodiversity. While some actions are easy to reverse, some may put conservation managers on a cycle of reactionary management that is hard to escape. For that reason, it is important to carefully consider both the benefits and drawbacks of a management action before implementation. It is also important to be ready and willing to adapt management protocols as and when needed (see adaptive management, Section 10.2.3).

    The importance of monitoring

    An important aspect of a protected area management plan involves setting up a well-designed, long-term monitoring plan to assess whether conservation goals are being met. The exact types of information gathered will depend on the goals and objectives of each protected area, but can include tracking threatened wildlife populations, monitoring ecosystem health, or evaluating whether a threat is increasing or decreasing. These assessments may involve a wildlife survey (Section 9.1), taking regular measurements of various ecosystem indicators (Section 10.1), and/or conducting regular law enforcement monitoring (Section 12.3). In recognition of the linkages between the wellbeing of people and success of conservation (Oberholzer et al., 2010; Oldekop et al., 2016; Hauenstein et al., 2019), many conservation biologists are now also combining biodiversity monitoring with monitoring local peoples’ well-being.

    A protected area management plan should include a long-term monitoring plan to assess whether conservation goals are being met.

    Monitoring may highlight uncomfortable realities for conservation managers. An example could be management actions that prove to harm biodiversity (discussed above). Another uncomfortable reality is when one species needs to be prioritised over another. This is the case on protected islands off Southern Africa’s west coast, where biologists have resorted to selectively culling Cape fur seals (Actocephalus pusillus, LC) that predate on three species of threatened seabirds; in one case, this predation led to the abandonment of an entire seabird breeding colony (Makhado et al., 2009). Even more problematic is when one threatened species causes significant harm to another. This is the case in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, where chimpanzees kill as much as 12% of the area’s Ugandan red colobus monkeys (Procolobus tephrosceles, EN) each year (Watts and Mitani, 2002; Lwanga et al., 2011). It is however important to not confuse sustainable levels of predation with real threats that can lead to extinction. For example, in Ethiopia, the big-headed African mole rat (Tachyoryctes microcephalus, EN) is the favoured prey of the similarly-threatened Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis, EN). However, rather than predation by the wolves, habitat loss from agriculture and overgrazing is the most important threat to the survival of the mole rat (Lavrenchenko and Kennerley, 2016), as well as the wolf (Marino and Sillero-Zubiri, 2011).

    The control of any wildlife population, even invasive species in protected areas, can become very emotional for the public. It may even give rise to animal rights advocacy groups that oppose or even impede conservation. Such is the case in South Africa, where a well-organised group of local citizens opposed the eradication of invasive Himalayan tahrs (Hemitragus jemlahicus, NT), relatives of goats, which threatened imperilled Fynbos plants in a World Heritage Site (Gaertner et al., 2016). To avoid unnecessary conflict with such citizen groups, which can quickly turn into a public relations nightmare, it is important to consider whether drastic management actions are necessary. If so, it is wise to involve and educate the public for the need of such actions at an early stage.

    Because monitoring can be resource-intensive, it is important to ensure the scale and methods of monitoring are appropriate for management needs. For small reserves, tracking only a few ecosystem components during periodic site visits might be sufficient. In contrast, for large or remote protected areas, geospatial analysis with environmental data obtained through remote sensing methods (Section 10.1.1) may be a more feasible way to monitor legal and illegal human impacts, such as logging (Figure 13.7), shifting cultivation, hunting, and mining. Many protected areas are also increasingly reliant on local people, researchers, tourists, and other groups of people to contribute to monitoring, particularly through citizen science projects (Section 15.4.1).

    Figure 13.7 Satellite imagery provides a cost-effective method for monitoring ecosystem conditions, both inside and outside protected areas. These freely available NASA Landsat images show how Rwanda’s Gishwati Forest lost 99.4% of its 1,000 km2 forest cover between 1986 (left) and 2001 (right). The area was declared a national park in 2016, and wildlife populations have started increasing thanks to habitat protection and restoration efforts. Photographs by NASA,, CC BY 4.0.

    The importance of working with local people

    The future of a protected area almost always depends on the degree of support, neglect, or hostility it receives from people who may be living inside the protected area, or in the surrounding area. Local people are unlikely to support conservation areas where there is a history of mistrust or disagreement between them and conservation authorities, or where park managers have not worked with and/or discussed conservation goals with them. This is particularly true when local people have been displaced by conservation actions (Cross, 2015; Baker et al., 2012) or are victims of human-wildlife conflict (Section 14.4). Such victims will understandably be angry and frustrated and may even reject conservation regulations altogether. Escalating cycles of hostility due to enforcement efforts can even lead to outright violence, during which protected areas staff, residents, and tourists can be threatened, hurt, or even killed.

    The future of a protected area depends on the degree of support, neglect, or hostility it receives from people who live inside the protected area, or in the surrounding area.

    To avoid such an ugly scenario, a central part of any protected area’s management plan must be a policy to ensure that local communities value, and benefit from, conservation activities. The ultimate goal of such a policy should not only be to ensure that local people become strong supporters of conservation efforts, but that they later also willingly contribute to them. At a very basic level, this can be accomplished by developing a range of ecotourism opportunities, particularly those that encourage participation in citizen science projects (Section 15.4.1), and those that afford opportunities where the goals and benefits of a protected area can be explained to local people. South Africa’s SANParks does this by encouraging school visits and accommodating a variety of income groups through a multi-tiered fee system (Beale et al., 2013b). When conservation displaces local people or limits activities previously allowed, it might also be worth investigating whether there is room to practice traditional activities in a sustainable way. Such is the case in South Africa, where the regional conservation authority Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife allows local people to sustainably harvest plant resources, such as thatching grass and medicinal plants, from protected areas they manage (Beale et al., 2013b; see also Section 13.5.2).

    The next level of involvement includes benefit sharing. This often takes the form of compensatory payments for people who have lost assets due to conservation actions (Hall et al., 2014; see also Section 14.4). Some park managers also provide educational and employment support to local communities. One example comes from Botswana’s Okavango Delta region, where employment opportunities generated through ecotourism ventures at Moremi Game Reserve greatly improved relationships between local communities and park managers (Mbaiwa and Strongza, 2011; see also Section 14.3). African Parks, who manages 15 national parks across 10 African countries, have made local involvement (Figure 13.8) and community development a core part of their mission, which they accomplish by constructing schools, facilitating entrepreneurship, and funding healthcare services. The third level of involvement involves co-management partnerships, where local people directly participate in park management and planning (discussed in Section 13.1.4).

    Figure 13.8 Wildlife experts working with African Parks fitting an elephant in Garamba National Park, DRC, with a satellite tracking device. Garamba’s management staff sometimes invites chiefs and other local villagers to take part in park events; touching a live elephant and seeing how biologists, veterinarians, and other experts operate allows the visitors to connect to conservation on a very personal level. Photograph by Naftali Honig/African Parks, CC BY 4.0.

    The importance of accommodating visitors

    Developing plans that accommodate outside visitors is also an important aspect of protected areas management. Tourists are some of the most important outside visitors to attract. Their spending stimulates local economies, and provides funds for salaries, maintenance, and other conservation initiatives (Ferraro and Hanauer, 2014). When tourism activities are combined with citizen science projects (Section 15.4.1), visitors can also contribute to monitoring, further expanding the capacity of protected areas staff. Accommodating university students and other researchers is also important, as they could provide valuable information to park managers and training to staff at a steeply discounted price, compared to work by expensive outside consultants who may not always understand local dynamics.

    While ecotourism provides opportunities for employment, income, and monitoring, it is important to manage the multiple threats introduced by visitors.

    While visitors provide significant benefits, it is important to monitor harmful elements they may knowingly or unknowingly introduce (Buckley et al., 2016). For example, visitors may introduce invasive species (Spear et al., 2013; Foxcroft et al., 2019) or induce behavioral changes in the animals they observe (Geffroy et al., 2015). Visitors may also directly damage protected ecosystems: frequent boating and diving among reefs can degrade reef communities when divers’ flippers, boat hulls, and anchors crush fragile corals. Visitors may even kill wildlife directly when they trample wildflowers, disrupt nesting birds, collide into animals that are crossing roads, or spread diseases to wildlife (Ryan and Walsh, 2011). When visitor activities are restricted, especially previously-allowed activities, park managers need to be able to explain reasons for the current policies and ensure that reasonable alternatives are available. For example, if the number of tourists visiting a special wildlife spot must be restricted to prevent damage to a site, the tourists could be offered the chance to visit a different site or participate in another activity.

    The IUCN Green List of Protected Areas

    A challenge that park managers frequently face is objectively determining how well their protected areas are managed. While profit margins, tourist numbers, species diversity, and population indices offer some form of evaluation criteria, it is not a fool-proof system: some well-managed protected areas are not very accessible to tourists, while carelessly increasing species richness or wildlife populations will likely have detrimental consequences. Tools such as the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (Stolton et al., 2007), Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (Moreto, 2015), and Rapid Assessment and Prioritisation of Protected Areas Management (Ervin, 2003) have helped park managers assess whether the goals of their management plans were being achieved. But with no global standard of best practices against which protected areas are objectively assessed, park managers are mostly left to evaluate success based on their own subjective criteria and goals.

    Figure 13.9 Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park, where Gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada, LC) roam in packs of hundreds, and globally threatened species such as the Walia ibex (Capra walie, EN) and Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis, EN) hang on to the edge of existence. The continued persistence of these and other species endemic to this World Heritage Site depends on effective management of protected areas such as this. Photograph by Hulivili,, CC BY 2.0.

    To fill this gap, the IUCN recently established the Green List of Protected Areas ( which aims to increase the number of protected areas that are effectively and fairly managed (Figure 13.9). Nominated protected areas will be evaluated against a set of standards which attest to management structures that can achieve long-term positive impacts on biodiversity and people. This list of standards, adapted to reflect local contexts within which evaluated protected areas operate, is divided into four higher level components: (1) good governance, (2) sound design and planning, (3) effective management, and (4) successful conservation outcomes (Figure 13.10). There are even plans, through a “Fair Finance” initiative, to reward protected areas that receive Green List status by making resources available to further strengthen their accomplishments.

    Figure 13.10 The list of generic standards, to be adapted for local contexts, against which protected areas will be evaluated before achieving IUCN Green List of Protected Areas status. After IUCN and WCPA, 2017, CC BY 4.0.

    The Green List has only recently been established; hence, not many protected areas have been evaluated by the time this book was written. Sub-Saharan Africa’s first Green List sites were Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, both which formed part of the 2014 initial trial period. Both sites were re-certified in 2018, when Kenya’s Ol Kinyei Conservancy was also added to the Green List. Hopefully many more sites will follow suit in the near future.

    This page titled 13.6: Managing 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.