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World on track with protected areas goal but falls short on quality, says UNEP

Hula Lake conservation area, north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. (Keystone/AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Designating new protected areas is “insufficient” if these are not well managed and governed equitably, a new report has found.

Despite great progress in boosting efforts to protect land and marine ecosystems in the last decade, management of these areas still needs work, according to a joint report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released on Wednesday.

Around 16 per cent of land and inland waters and nearly 8  per cent of coastal and marine areas are now protected, with an area greater than the size of Russia having been added in the past 10 years, according to the findings.

With some data still waiting to be analysed, this means the world is very close to meeting global biodiversity targets of protecting 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

“Protected and conserved areas play a crucial role in tackling biodiversity loss, and great progress has been made in recent years on strengthening the global network of protected and conserved areas,” Neville Ash, director of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said in a statement at the launch of the report.

Ash pointed out however that “designating and accounting for more protected and conserved areas is insufficient” if these are not managed effectively and governed equitably.

Major gaps in quality. Despite the increase in protected areas, a third of key biodiversity areas remain unprotected, according to the document. These are sites that contribute significantly to biodiversity resistance, for example areas containing species particularly threatened with extinction.

Protected and conserved areas also need to be better connected to each other for species to be able to travel across and for important ecological processes to take place. This includes having ecological corridors between habitats that have been separated by human activity such as the construction of a road. Yet only around half of terrestrial protected areas are well-connected, the report warns.

Another major challenge according to the authors is making sure that protected areas are effectively managed and equitably governed. This means, for example, that the costs of conservation do not solely fall on the local communities and that they are included in discussions and conservation efforts.

“Many protected and conserved areas are not demonstrating effectiveness, many remain under resourced and underfunded and that therefore not fulfilling the true potential to be effective in conserving nature and generate benefits for society,” IUCN’s director general Dr Bruno Oberle said at a press conference.

Data shortfalls. The report underscores the lack of data on the quality of protected area management. Only a fifth of protected areas have undergone management assessments, despite countries having committed to evaluate 60 per cent of such areas by 2015.

What’s more, this indicator does not tell how countries are performing. The report highlights the need for better global measuring tools to be developed, such as IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas. It also calls for under-reported efforts made by local and indigenous communities as well as the private sector, which are crucial for the future of the natural world, to be recognised.

More ambition needed. The UN Biodiversity Conference is due to take place in October in Kunming, China, where a post-2020 global biodiversity framework should be adopted. Many are hoping that negotiations will result in stronger conservation targets in order to halt the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems.

“As biodiversity continues to decline, we now call for Parties at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming to set an ambitious target that will ensure protected area coverage of 30 per cent of land, freshwater and ocean by 2030,” Oberle said in a statement.

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