Investment in protected area management is often a better option than expanding protected areas

Investment in protected area management is often a better option than expanding protected areas

With conservation funds in short supply, existing protected areas rarely have an adequate budget for management. This raises a critical question for decision makers: should governments and/or environmental organisations spend new funds on purchasing more land or managing existing protected areas?   

Our experience working with protected area managers is that they rarely report having adequate funding, staff, or time to support required management actions like fencing protected area boundaries, removing weeds and prescribed burns.  The scientific literature supports our experiences and insights – for example 60% of protected areas in a global assessment of management effectiveness scores reported that the available budget was inadequate for basic management or that they had no management budget (the lowest possible scores under this scorecard item). This led us to ask the question: ‘when should new funds for nature conservation be spent on expansion or management?’ in our paper, “Weighing the benefits of expanding protected areas versus managing existing ones”.  

With inadequate conservation resources, it’s no surprise that we see continued increases of threats to species that we are trying to protect. Some types of threats – such as deforestation, or overgrazing - can be counteracted by declaring a protected area; other threats, such as changes in fire frequency, disease outbreaks, and invasions of weeds and feral species, require active management in protected areas (Figure 1). The impacts of these different types of threats, and the actions required to mitigate them (along with the benefits and costs of action) have been well studied.  But what was not clear was how this information should be put together to help managers know when to allocate effort towards expansion or management.

Figure 1. A) Image of grazed (right) versus ungrazed (left) habitat (Photo Credit: Megan Barnes). Protection (enforced by fencing where needed) can effectively stop threats like clearing and grazing.  B) Feral Cat with Galah (Photo Credit: Mark Marathon). Active management is required to stop threats such as predation by feral animals and has been shown to effectively halt predation and prevent extinctions. C) Fire maintained landscape with a fire supressed region (left) and a region with decades of prescribed fire (right)within a single protected area (Photo Credit: Gwen Iacona).  Active management is required to address threats such as inappropriate fire regimes.   

We used a mathematical model to study how decisions about expansion of protected areas compared to improved protected area management.  This approach allowed us to represent the important parts of the system of interest and parameterize it in a way that provides unambiguous insight into the relevant benefits of when to manage or protect. We discovered that the relative priority of expansion and management is determined by quantifiable factors – the relative costs of the two actions and the rates of degradation in protected and unprotected areas.  In most contexts our model suggests that management should be a priority first action. However, some regions of the world such as East and West Africa and Melanesia were recommended for expansion of protected areas. These areas are characterized by low levels of existing protection and high threats of habitat loss so the benefit of protected area expansion is high.  

An interesting outcome of our modelled results was that, contrary to spending patterns which focus on expansion rather than management, management is the better first investment in many contexts. And management is always a necessary complement to new acquisition. This highlights that, while our existing protected areas are an important asset, increased investment in management is essential to maximise their potential to protect biodiversity. As we head into 2020 CBD negotiations, it’s time to get serious about effective management targets. Aichi Target 11 states that:  By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas are conserved through effectively and equitably managed protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.  But, what does an ‘effectively managed protected area’ look like? If we can answer this, we can define SMART (specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic, and time-bound) targets to meet Aichi Target 11’s ‘effectively managed’ component.  We need a quantifiable target for effective management from the next Convention on Biological Diversity (2020 in Kunming) that will lead to more investment in management, just as the 17% protection target spurred expansion of the protected area system. 

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