Wildlife conservation has long centered on the imaginaries of a pristine wilderness, untouched by humans, leading to protected areas being formed worldwide. When making protected areas, what are we protecting? Who are we protecting these areas from? These arguments for protected areas rest on a hidden assumption: that humans are always bad for wildlife and nature. What if we dared to imagine – or perhaps, remember, a world and a time when this was not the case?
Conservationists have been long enamored by the idea of protected areas and wilderness. In 2016, conservation biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed the “half-earth” theory. He suggested that it was time to put aside half of the world for wildlife, with the other half for people. In 2019 a group of respected scientists put forth the audacious 30 by 30 plan, which focuses on preserving earth’s biodiversity by excluding humans from protected areas encompassing 30 percent of the earth’s surface by 2030. In 2022, COP15 on the Convention for Biological Diversity discussed this plan, leading to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Despite the scale of the 30 for 30 proposal, one hundred and ninety six countries said yes, signing the agreement. Could it be that countries were finally taking action to limit the sixth mass extinction?
The protection of nature by the exclusion of humans through national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, or other protected areas has long been an unchallenged goal of conservationists. “Half-Earth” and“30 by 30” are recent proposals that build on this assumption, long present in the conservation world. With new data collected from the last decade, some conservation scientists are rethinking that conventional wisdom. It seems, worldwide, making sanctuaries of nature based on exclusion is not as effective as previously assumed.
Reservations about Reserves
In an effort to assess the success of tropical rainforest protected areas at preserving biodiversity, a collaborative effort of scientists examined changes going back 20 to 30 years. In their study, published in 2012, they found that half were failing in their goals, losing species and ecological functions at alarming rates. The determining factor between success and failure appeared to be environmental health of the regions outside the park.
If the area outside of the reserve is a key determinant in predicting reserve health, irrespective of reserve size, and protected areas cannot be infinite, we’re required to fundamentally challenge the idea of a protected area. Boundaries alone are insufficient protection.
A 2022 study examining waterbird declines found that park management, more than park size, was the key determinant of success. Protected areas are incredibly expensive to manage and administer. The lions within Africa’s national parks need one billion dollars a year to administer, a staggering sum which, especially considering conservation’s chronic underfunding.
Climate change knows no boundaries, and can’t be excluded by a chain link fence around a finite area. A recent study from Britain that looked at both pollinators and predators found that although protected areas harbor more biodiversity than unprotected areas, they both lose species at similar rates. These regions are crucial for rare species, and for the protection of pollinators, even as those pollinators shift their ranges due to climate change. In Borneo, tropical rainforests are under immense anthropogenic pressures from agriculture, and creating protected areas is tremendously difficult. Even under the lowest climate warming scenario, 61% of Borneo’s protected areas will not possess the same climate in 2100. Most of the residents of these protected areas may not be able to live there anymore. Protected areas can’t guard against climate change.
Protected Areas and Imperiled People
Creating protected areas invariably implies the restriction of movement for people, particularly indigenous people, within and outside of the park. One study found that 73% of those living around Kruger National Park had never visited, and those who did were able to do so because of outreach programs. In such preserves, fences are raised between people and nature, severing ties between nature and culture, eliminating and criminalizing traditional use of the land.
Creating protected areas often means the displacement and eviction of nearby residents , especially indigenous people. The violence inherent to displacement cannot be overstated. To sever people from their land, even if they are offered monetary compensation, is a profoundly traumatic experience. A poor and inadequate record of indigenous peoples’ land tenures has led to a vast underestimate of how many people have been displaced by the creation of national parks. We simply don’t know how many have been evicted.
Often, the creation of a protected area is a state-making process, enforcing with violence the authority of the nation-state over those who often find their identity as distinct. The most well-known example is the abuse of people by WWF-funded park rangers in Salonga. Scholars have termed the brutal use of violence in the name of conservation as “green-militarisation”, and its troubling rise as a tactic must be halted.
Ironically, this condemnation of indigenous use often coexists in areas where trophy hunting is legal. It appears using natural resources is not criminal if the government is adequately compensated for the practice through the provision of hunting licenses.
A study that spanned Brazil, Australia and Canada found that the diversity of vertebrates in indigenous managed lands equaled that in protected areas. We aren’t losing the big, charismatic species we associate with wildlife sanctuaries – bears, panthers, and dingoes do at least as well when indigenous people protect them as when people are disbarred. Indigenous-managed lands in fact support more threatened species than protected areas, seemingly providing spaces for the species most at risk.
Indigenous communities who have lived and resided on their traditional land also possess a deep wealth of knowledge about ecosystem functions and biodiversity which often fail to be incorporated into protected area management plans. And yet, we seek to evict, alienate, and act with violence against indigenous communities.
While protected areas have secured wildlife in the past, the question today is if they are still worth the tremendous economic and human costs, especially as climate change shifts habitats around the erected fences of existing preserves? Justifying the cost, especially for new protected areas, becomes more difficult when viable, more effective, and less challenging alternatives exist.
Recognising indigenous rights and co-creating governance frameworks is one way forward. A collaboration of thirty NGOs identified crucial improvements to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. The primary requirement is establishing and securing land tenures and rights for local and indigenous communities for existing and future protected areas. They also call for critical evaluation of protected areas in general, highlighting that they often fail to attain their goals.
In India, the landmark Forest Rights Act (2006) acknowledged for the first time that indigenous people have a right to their land, permitting residence and natural resource use within protected areas. Massive movements across South America, primarily in Ecuador and Brazil, have allowed indigenous people to secure their natural heritage.
Community forests, protections for species rather than areas, and ecological restoration are also conservation without exclusion. Agricultural fields, with small modifications, can sustain tremendous reservoirs of wildlife. Urban biodiversity parks can harbor both common and rare species. Other effective conservation measures allow humans and wildlife to coexist without fences and boundaries.
A wide array of measures and policies exist to make conservation more equitable, and potentially more effective. We need to interrogate and find evidence to explore existing norms of conservation through protected areas. With finite spaces and increasing space requirements, we need to explore how humans and wildlife can occupy the same spaces. Countries like India, Ecuador and Brazil have made great strides, and it’s likely that every country will have many imaginative and powerful solutions to preserve biodiversity for the future.
Yamini Srikanth is an ecologist and writer whose primary love is trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of their laptop, they can be found outside poking at any insect, bird, or plant. They can be found online through Muckrack: https://muckrack.com/yamini-srikanth-1