The limits of protected areas

There’s an interesting paper just out in Nature entitled “Protected areas have a mixed impact on waterbirds, but management helps.” It’s unfortunately behind a paywall, but one of the authors, Dr Julia Jones, has done a helpful Twitter thread about it, which I’ve unspooled here if you dislike social media. There’s also mainstream media coverage, of course.

The authors analysed data on waterbird populations before and after protection of sites, mainly in North America and Europe, as collected by thousands of volunteers. They found a mixed and confusing picture, with designation of a protected area having a wide range of impacts from negative to positive on the population sizes of the birds found therein.

Disappointing, I know, but there was a ray of light. As the title of the paper says, management made a difference. If the protected area was specifically managed with waterbirds in mind, then the impact of protection was more likely to be positive.

Which is why some of us who are interested in the conservation of things other than birds think there should be a global network of protected sites for crop wild relatives (CWR). In the same way that we just can’t rely on the generalised protection afforded by legal designation of a national park, or whatever, to do anything for waterbirds, we can’t expect it a priori to do anything for CWR either.

But does that mean that we’ll need millions of protected areas around the world, each specialising only in this or that species or group of species? I don’t think so. What we do need is for the CWR conservation community to work closely with the managers of existing protected areas to make sure that the correct interventions are applied to make sure that the CWR populations which happen to occur within their borders are able to thrive. That would probably not be enough, and it may well be necessary to set up some additional protected areas specifically devoted to CWR. But it would be a good start. And we do have a good a good evidence base.1

Incidentally, some of authors of the waterbirds paper have another paper out, “Language barriers in global bird conservation,” which is also well worth reading. About 15% of the more than 10,000 birds they looked at have geographic distributions within which more than 10 languages are spoken. And even when you control for area, threatened birds have significantly more languages spoken within their distributions. Which clearly is a challenge for conservation. I wonder if there’s something similar happening with CWR.

  1. There’s also this interactive portal covering Europe. []

One Reply to “The limits of protected areas”

  1. I once managed one of these wetland areas for bird conservation, a Ramsar site, Aldabra Atoll, 44,000ha in the Western Indian Ocean (Ramsar site no. 1887), also now a World Heritage Site. Early management was easy – get rid of introduced species – cats, dogs, goats, pied crows, and introduced economic plants such as sisal. But then there were tricky ones. Is Casuarina introduced?? What do you do if birds from the largest colony of grey herons in the Southern Hemisphere eat the chicks of the Aldabran very endemic Flightless Rail? What to do when the herbs – some endemic – are grazed down to the ground by the endemic Giant Tortoise – the largest population in the World. Cruise ships were a bother. We had to patrol the nesting sites of Boobies and Frigate birds in the lagoon to keep the photographers at a distance. Fortunately there were no CWRs.

    For wild ancestors of crops, field management in protected areas could be difficult. The present massive soil disturbance in arable farming is, in our opinion, a direct and necessary consequence of massive disturbance in the wild at the time of, and even leading to, domestication. The wild relatives of at least the first three cereals (two wheats and a barley) grew naturally in what were violently disturbed conditions – vulcanism, tectonic plate movements, multiple junctions of phytogeographic regions, junction of opposing climatic regions, and most probably dry-season fires, to which, of necessity, they were closely adapted, not least by being annuals. Indeed, they depended on such conditions to control inter-species competition. We have only just become aware of these massive stresses on ancestral species (including periodic flooding for wild rice).

    Identifying stress factors needed for the survival of CWRs, and then managing the stress, is well-nigh impossible for hundreds of different CWRs. For example, how do you provide the annual millions of tonnes of Himalayan silt brought down to maintain the vast carpets of monodominant Oryza coarctata in the Indus and Ganges Deltas?

    I laid into management shortcomings of protected areas 27 years ago.

    Wood, D. (1995) Conserved to death: Are tropical forests being over-protected from people?, Land Use Policy, 12(2), pp. 115–135.

    The same problems could be repeated now for CWRs. Some kind of disturbance is usually needed: but how much?

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