Can national parks and marine protected areas safeguard endangered wildlife against the growing pressures of population growth and climate change?
Designated a national park in 1778 but safeguarded unofficially since the 13th century, the world’s oldest protected area is Mongolia’s sacred Bogd Khan Mountain, overlooking Ulan Bator. The Emperor of Manchur’s 18th-century edict was designed to prevent mortals from desecrating the realms of the divine. Building was restricted, logging and hunting banned.
Notions of the sacred then tally with the tenets of environmentalism now, although species and habitat conservation is the focus of the world’s 112,000 protected areas in the modern age, rather than its consequence. But with less than 6 per cent of the world’s land and 1 per cent of its oceans protected, just how successful can they be?
As a Canadian study revealed last year, biodiversity is falling across the board despite an increase in the number of areas given ‘protected’ status. There need to be more of them and they need to be bigger, argue the researchers, but there also need to be fewer people.
With the global population destined to reach 9 billion by 2050, the pressure on species and habitat is expected to grow in tandem with the difficulties of protecting them. The study identifies a ‘clear and urgent need for the development of additional solutions for biodiversity loss, particularly ones that stabilise the size of the world’s human population and our ecological demands on biodiversity’.
Another issue is that wildlife is no respecter of boundaries: migrating birds, foraging bears or shoals of fish lose what protection they have once they cross an invisible line. Those dangers may literally begin on the doorstep – as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources points out: ‘In many cases [protected areas] are just islands of protection in larger zones degraded by humans.’
Such degradation is often the result of broader geopolitical pressures, particularly in poorer countries. Poverty may lead to subsistence farmers clearing forest to plant crops, for example, or war displace vast populations into environmentally sensitive habitat. Human need is no respecter of boundaries either.