Protect biodiversity, not just area: SMARTER protected area commitments needed to halt biodiversity decline

Global biodiversity conservation goals shape the behaviour of individuals, governments and NGOs.The Aichi Targets are a set of goals, under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is dedicated to halting biodiversity decline worldwide. These targets shape global conservation policy and practice.


The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11 mandates that 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine environments be conserved in effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative protected areas (PAs) by 2020 as a means of improving the status of biodiversity (Target text HERE). Simple, measurable, numerical indicators for quantifying progress – like the 17/10% area component of the target – carry strong appeal, but also conflate means: the action of establishing protected areas; with ends: maintaining biodiversity within their boundaries. As with other global policy goals (see S. Fukuda-Parr J. Hum. Dev. Capab. 15, 118–131; 2014), the abstract nature of the rest of the target has created unintended consequences for national conservation planning.

Crucially, the target also mandates that these protected areas be effective, equitable biodiversity management; ecological representation of a mix of ecosystems; and connectivity between sites to allow species dispersal. Sadly, though, area coverage is the only element of Target 11 that is on track, at least on land (D. P. Tittensor et al. Science 346, 241–244; 2014). Other crucial elements are effective, equitable biodiversity management; ecological representation of a mix of ecosystems; and connectivity between sites to allow species dispersal. Some species and ecosystems may be lost if implementation of these elements is delayed much longer.

At the most recent World Parks Congress – a global forum on protected areas research, management and policy, nations made commitments on the future of their protected areas.13940401416_fe0669b5f5_o
Comoros committed to a 11-fold increase in protected areas and to make the entire island of Moheli a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. South Africa stated its intention to increase marine protected areas by ten times. Russia said it would increase its protected area coverage by 22%. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon announced the intention of Gabon to create a network of MPAs to preserve 23% of Gabon’s EEZ – these among a spate of similar announcements.

This all seems great, but notice the pattern? Its all percentages and area under protection. We argue in Nature today (Barnes, M. Glew, L. Craigie, I. and Wyborn, C. Nature 526, 195, 2015) that more area is no longer enough. While, target 11 appears to have been a success, having galvanised establishment of over 1 million km2 of terrestrial and marine protected areas; In fact, pursuing more area in short timeframes, can result in an array of perverse outcomes that are worse than if we had done nothing, as Callum Roberts highlights in the UK context here). There is a a real risk that some species and ecosystems will be lost if implementation of the critical additional elements of the target is delayed much longer.


A misguided focus on area under protection to the the exclusion of the crucial elements: management effectiveness, equitable protected areas, ecological representativeness and connectivity, risks an array of perverse outcomes, inefficiencies and missed opportunities that compromise the broader CBD goals. It encourages the proliferation of large protected areas that are under little threat (see discussion here), and neglects areas where protection is most needed.

Expansion in areas of low political cost can undermine financial capacity and political will to
implement conservation in PAs. Consequently, this results in delays, or failure to implement PAs where they are most needed while claiming ‘success’ without altering the trajectory of biodiversity decline, or making any effort to track the real impact on biodiversity – as appears to have happened in Australia. If not considered in the context of other elements of Target 11, maximising the area under protection also increases the financial and political cost of meeting the same biodiversity goals, resulting in inefficiencies such as the need for greater areas of land and sea need to be protected to meet the same biodiversity goals.


Our letter is a response to ongoing promotion of how “great” progress on protected areas is. Sure, it’s nice to acknowledge preliminary efforts, and the first steps towards protected area networks where they previously have not existed. After 15 years of pursuing percentages though, we need to shift the narrative in our community towards congratulating efforts that result in real on-ground biodiversity outcomes and maximise the long-term benefit for biodiversity, rather being so overjoyed at the first step, To continue the analogy, it seems somewhat like being excited about a teenager walking.
We challenge the conservation community to go beyond congratulations over “hectares covered” 13940399646_b174cc5352_oand move towards enacting actions and celebrating progress towards biodiversity outcomes, rather than simply designating areas as “protected” and hiding behind the percentages, with little interest in meeting the underlying goal of avoiding biodiversity loss.
Instead of announcements that focus on how many km2 have been protected, I’d love to see some that focus on improvements in core management objectives – such as increased management effectiveness through time.

Don’t you think “management has improved in 57% of our parks”, or “since beginning our new program, there are 2000 more hippopotamus in the landscape” is a better headline that 500,000 square kilometres of sea are inside a line we drew on a map? I certainly do, but big numbers are sexy and lines on maps are easy – especially if they are in areas that carry low opportunity costs.

With negotiations beginning in 2016 for the next tranche of the convention’s targets, new incentives are needed to move the emphasis towards the pivotal additional elements of Target 11. Without more emphasis on outcomes, and avoided loss, the protected area coverage target will be achieved but biodiversity will not benefit – and we will all lose.

To join the conversation, ping me on twitter: @ultimatemegs and share your solutions and your stories of local, regional and national success and failure in meeting the arguably more important, elements of Target 11 using the tags: #notjustarea and #moreANDbetter

Relevant Publications:

Barnes, M. Glew, L. Craigie, I. and Wyborn, C. Nature 526, 195, 2015

Craigie ID, Pressey RL, Barnes M. Remote regions – The last places where conservation efforts should be intensified. A reply to McCauley et al. (2013)


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