Since the creation of the first national park in 1872 (Yellowstone, USA), there are now more than 102,000 protected areas. These areas, which cover 4% of the planet, are unequally distributed and operate in different ways. To perform well, they must take account of the needs of the local populations.
In forty years, the number of protected areas listed by the United Nations has multiplied by ten. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) has listed more than 102,000 land- and sea-based sites covering almost 19 million km2, i.e. 4% of the planet and more than the surface area of China and India combined. On the other hand, less than 1% of the seas and oceans are protected.
Europe is the continent with the most protected areas (43,000); Asia has 18,000; North America 13,000; Australia 9,000; and Africa 6,990. Proportionally, however, Central and South America are the most protected parts of the world.
A long history
The first known example of protection dates back to 252 BC, when the Emperor Asoka in India established protected areas for mammals, birds, fish and forests. The oldest national park is Yellowstone in the north western United States, created in 1872 over an area of 8,983 km2. It is now part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
While the first parks were created from a perspective of preservation (maintaining an earlier state), others were created as hunting reserves. Conservation is now the priority, which corresponds to sustainable development: ensuring the long-term existence of the resource for future generations.
We are also aware of the value of ecosystems. This value is cultural, social, scientific and economic. The World Resource Institute also believes, among other examples that more than a billion people depend on protected forests for their subsistence. In Cambodia, 20 to 58% of the daily resources of the inhabitants come from protected mangroves, particularly for the poorest populations.
With or against humans
In the past, conservationists have often considered humans (often the native populations) who inhabit regions that need protection to be obstacles. A typical example is the Kruger Park, the largest in Africa. Its founder, Stevenson-Hamilton, expelled all the tribes who lived in protected areas. Others were expelled when the park was extended.
Today, ecologists include humans in their projects, from a realistic perspective, as deserted land more easily becomes prey to poachers, and because they have understood that much of the “wild” or “virgin” landscapes were in fact created thousands of years ago by the interactions between humans and nature. It is also much more efficient to involve local populations in the protection of their environment. UNESCO is one of the pioneers of “participatory” approaches, with the Man and Biosphere programme created in 1970.
We still have to right the wrongs of the past. The Makuleke, expelled from the north of the Kruger Park during Apartheid, have been able to recover some of their territory and become partners in the economic exploitation of the park, particularly by the management of tourist accommodation. In Kenya, the former Amboseli National Park was returned to the Masai.
Without being able to protect the entire planet, are there places that are vital for biodiversity? In 1988, Norman Myers, together with other scientists, developed the concept of biodiversity hotspots. He identified 34 of them around the world. Together, they represent only 2.3% of the Earth’s surface, but they shelter more than 50% of all plants and 42% of all vertebrates, for example.
What to protect?
Experts are now debating how to protect biodiversity. In general terms, they agree on prioritising the protection of whole ecosystems rather than one species or another, which, deprived of its environment, has only a small chance of survival. However, some species that play a major role in the ecosystem (keystone species) or that are ‘media’ species (species that make it possible to mobilise important means to protect an entire ecosystem) can be prioritised.
The creation of a protected area does not automatically guarantee the survival of the species that live in it. Poaching, biopiracy, unauthorised constructions, illegal forest exploitation, etc., can all comprise a threat. This is especially true in those areas where the State does not have the resources to ensure effective control. That is clearly the case in conflict areas, such as the Virunga Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. It is also the case in large areas of the most developed countries, such as French Guiana: its natural reserves and its national park are very poorly monitored, and two rangers were killed in 2006.
In addition, adequate and regular funding is essential for the functioning of the protected areas. Most are therefore setting up ecotourism programmes to fund themselves.
Diversity of protection methods
There is a wide variety of protection statuses. It is possible, in broad outline, to distinguish protected areas by a precise regulatory framework limiting or prohibiting certain human activities (classified sites, national parks), areas protected by land management (acquisition of land, as is done by the Conservatoire du Littoral (coastal conservation agency) in France, for example), and areas subject to a specific performance obligation, although without constraints (French regional national parks or the Natura 2000 sites in Europe).
Two cases can be highlighted: UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites, 174 of which are of natural interest. The first of these was the Galapagos Islands, in 1978. These are often notable sites that have been travelled, exploited and protected by native populations, such as the Lapland region of Sweden, where the Sami people raise reindeer, or the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park, travelled by the indigenous people of Australia. 17 sites are presently considered to be at risk.
Natura 2000 is a European network formed in 1992 by a legal instrument called the Habitats Directive. The project fell behind schedule, and the European Commission even had to admonish France and Poland.