What Is Driving The Loss Of Protected Areas?

The larger the protected area, the more likely it is to experience downgrading, downsizing and degazettement.

AsianScientist (Dec. 10, 2015) – Protected areas (PAs) conjure up the image of safe havens for wildlife and tropical biodiversity. But the boundaries, size and legal protection of these areas are vulnerable to events known as PADDD: protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement.

In a recent volume of Global Change Biology, scientists found that PA size, local population densities and altitude are contributing factors to such events. These findings hold implications for conservation practitioners on how PA management and expansion should be strategized in the future.

Protected areas are not a recent phenomenon. Hailed as a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation, the modern movement began with the establishment Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Today there are approximately 150,000 PA sites globally, with approximately 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems designated as PAs.

The media frequently lauds the establishment of new PAs in efforts to conserve biodiversity. Unknown to many, the size and protection statuses of these areas are not a permanent fixture. Scientists from the National University of Singapore along with two conservation NGOs Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International investigate the reasons for PA loss by PADDD events.

Downgrading is the reduction in legal protection of the area by authorizing human activity within the PA, downsizing occurs when the PA is made smaller by legal excision while degazettement completely removes legal protections of the area.

On a global scale, PADDD events have been attributed to industrial-scale resource extraction and local land pressures, in a 2011 study. Subsequently, Mr. William Symes, lead author and graduate student at the National University of Singapore, and his co-authors came up with the idea to investigate why PADDD events occurred in the tropical regions. The idea for the paper came from Professor Madhu Rao, Director and Technical Advisor for Wildlife Conservation Society, who is also an expert on PAs and highlighted the the dataset.

“It seemed feasible and reasonable that there might be some things that influence spatial occurrence,” Symes said.

The authors sieved through 343 PADDD events since the 1900s, involving 207 tropical and subtropical PAs managed at a national level in 44 countries from sources such as WWF and PADDDtracker.org. Their dataset included 44 downgrades, 139 downsizing events and 24 degazettements, while three had experienced downgrading and downsizing events in global tropical and subtropical regions.

Of these, tropical regions in Asia had nine downgrading, 68 downsizing and five degazetting events. Among the Southeast Asian countries, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia had a positive value above the global mean, indicating a higher probability of undergoing a PADDD event compared to Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand which had lower probability than the global mean.

Using general mixed effect models, they examined the relationship between PADDD occurrences and available geographical and socio-economic indices such as agricultural rent, national GDP, accessibility (effect of roads), and population size.

They found that larger PAs were more likely to undergo a PADDD, especially for a downsizing event. A synergistic interaction between PA size and local population density also appeared to affect the probability of a PADDD event occurrence. This was especially apparent in the case for downsizing events and not downgrading or degazettement events, probably because opportunity costs are larger for larger PAs. Altitude was also found to have a small but positive influence on all PADDD events, suggesting that mountainous areas have a higher probability of getting the cut.

While larger PAs appear to have a higher ‘risk’ of facing a PADDD event, Symes pointed out that their research “does not suggest that the higher probabilities of PADDD in larger PAs renders such sites undesirable for conservation.”

On the contrary, they maintain that this should not dissuade practitioners from attempting to conserve large areas as many large PAs still harbor intact and unique ecosystems and communities. Instead, the realization that PAs have legislative vulnerabilities to economic pressures should allow for robustness in the statutory framework when establishing future PAs.

These findings have implications on how conservation practitioners and policy makers plan and lobby for PAs. For one, it allows practitioners to assess current PA networks. Secondly, it can be an assessment method for future PA additions. Keeping track of the evolving dynamism behind PADDD events will allow for efficient long-term conservation implementation.

“We hope this study will highlight the need to further elucidate the driving factors to feed into long term strategizing,” Symes concluded.

The article can be found at: Symes et al. (2015) Why Do We Lose Protected Areas? Factors Influencing Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement in the Tropics and Subtropics.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: William Symes.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Mary-Ruth is a research assistant with the evolutionary ecology & conservation lab at the National University of Singapore, where she studies reticulated python spatial ecology.

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