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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2018

Chevron’s Gas Plant Being Built in a Class A Protected Area

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

So, hurrah, right?

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first is that designating protected areas is relatively easy (and with publicity bonus points for politicians), but hardly anyone seems to be bothering with the hard work of actually protecting them. Roughly a third of national parks, reserves, refuges and the like now face intense and increasing human pressure, according to a recent study in the journal Science.

It’s not just a familiar story of poor nations failing to train and properly equip rangers, according to the report’s senior author, James E. M. Watson, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland. He points to Australia’s Barrow Island Marine Park, granted a wealthy nation’s highest level of protection because it is home to variety of rare mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates, many found nowhere else in the world. Even so, in 2003, said Mr. Watson, the government allowed construction and expansion of a vast energy complex there, supplied by more than 450 oil and natural gas wells — the Aussie counterpart to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Other nations look at what’s happening in Australia and the United States, and they say, ‘Why should we bother?’ ” he said.

Governments that boast about their protected areas without actually protecting them, Mr. Watson said, are “selling a myth.” Even Unesco’s Natural World Heritage sites — supposedly the planet’s greatest natural treasures — have a human footprint closer on average to farmland than to wilderness, he notes. When Tanzania, for instance, wanted to dig a uranium mine in its vast and storied Selous Game Reserve, once home to the world’s largest population of elephants, Unesco approved the 135-square mile project — and duly moved the Selous onto its list of endangered World Heritage sites.

So many protected areas now face development that there’s an acronym for it — PADDD, for protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement — and a website for keeping up on the bad news.

The second problem with protected areas is the result of a peculiar foible of the human mind: Politicians, like the rest of us, are suckers for numeric targets like the ones in the Convention on Biological Diversity. These targets seem simple, objective, easily comparable from one place to the next, and inexpensive to measure. But the perverse outcome is that governments have ignored the convention’s admonition to protect areas “of particular importance to biodiversity” and instead focused almost entirely on maximizing acreage, according to a recent study in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The standard strategy is to designate protected areas in remote regions where the cost and the inconvenience to humans is minimal. Australia, for instance, has largely put protected areas in its vast central desert region, rather than in coastal areas where they would protect more threatened species — but also inconvenience more people. Likewise, Brazil in March designated new marine protected areas the size of France and the United Kingdom combined, but omitted near-shore areas where there’s a greater diversity of wildlife facing more immediate threats from human activity.

Writing about the Half-Earth Project, a bid by conservationists to keep half the planet “as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible,” E. O. Wilson cautioned that making decisions about which habitats to protect without a more complete knowledge of Earth’s existing species “would lead to irreversible mistakes.” But the authors of the Nature Ecology and Evolution study put it more tersely: Pretending to protect species based purely on the number of acres protected is like managing human health care based on the number of hospital beds, “irrespective of the presence of trained medical staff” or “whether patients live or die.”

Researchers who looked at the home ranges of more than 4,000 threatened birds, mammals and amphibians worldwide for a 2014 study found that protected areas miss 85 percent of them. Even if all 168 convention signatories meet their 2020 protected area targets, their acreage monomania means they’d still miss 84 percent of threatened species, says Oscar Venter, a conservation scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia and the lead author of that study. Is it any wonder, then, that species and subspecies continue to go extinct — the western black rhino in 2011, the Japanese river otter in 2012, the Formosan clouded leopard in 2013, the Bramble Cay melomys in 2016 — even as we celebrate our success stories?

“If we are going to take natural history seriously, and all the things our communities and our economies depend on from natural areas,” Mr. Venter said, “we have to start putting parks in the right places and managing them in the right way.” That will at times entail setting aside our profits and our precious convenience, and it may seem like a stretch to imagine our self-indulgent species ever acting on this reality. But the alternative is to spend our lives in a world increasingly without wildlife.


Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles appear in The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. His latest book is “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth.”

10 Responses to “Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)”

  1. Thank-you for this posting!

    Conservation is not done by lines on a map. Conservation is done by people and requires some change in behavior by people. Yet conservation donors like the statistics of “acres saved” or, the latest gadgets, or new policies, or another study, or new regulations. All those things might help conservation, but only over time in the right hands with the backing of the right people. All too often people (and I am especially critical of donors and governments) consider the job done when a new policy, study, or regulation is completed. In fact, such completion is only the first step. But it is much sexier to fund a new policy, study, or initiative rather than support the years of hard work by dedicated people necessary to yield tangible, positive, and enduring outcomes.

  2. A retired biologist living in my community spent most of his career as a consultant in China. He pointed out that they like to claim they’ve protected as much area as we have in America. But they do it by drawing a circle on a map, without regard for the fact that there is intense human habitation and activity within the circle. It isn’t about quantity, folks, but quality. Unless protections are meaningful and properly sited, what is the point?

  3. Most people take for granted that national land management agencies work to protect wildlife refuges and other public lands. However, at every turn, for instance livestock grazing in U. S. wilderness areas, we find that destructive commercial enterprises are using the land.

    • So is the federal government still charging rates per AUM that are significantly below comparable commercial land? (And then failing to collect that rent?) It would be interesting to know how charging market rates would affect the overgrazing problem.

  4. A really interesting article which, with your permission, I would like to reblog to my followers?

  5. Reblogged this on Frederick Anderson and commented:
    Something all of us interested in the world we are passing on to our children should read?

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