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17.2: Establishing Protected Areas

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    Figure 17.2.1 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 17.2.1), 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 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 maximize 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 and sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants. 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.

    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 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, 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. 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 where it is used as a tool to meet both conservation goals and restitution of previously dispossessed land.

    Figure 17.2.2 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 have 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.

    This page titled 17.2: 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.