PAsSmallAs global efforts to expand Earth’s total area under protection ramp up, it’s critical to balance size-based approaches with a focus on overall conservation impact to ensure maximum gains for nature and the billions that depend on it. If unchanged, current standards could lead to detrimental consequences for conservation, according to new research published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The study, “Beyond Area Based Targets,” acknowledges that creating new protected areas to conserve species is vital to helping global efforts to defend nature and biodiversity. Its authors warn, however, that using size as the sole or even primary measure of success risks using up limited political and social capital on protecting areas that don’t maximise conservation benefits — leading to a global protected area network far less impactful than it could be.

“Focusing on area is dangerous because we risk protecting a lot of land and sea with limited biodiversity benefits,” said Dr Megan Barnes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and lead author on the paper.

International targets adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) include the protection of at least 17 percent of land and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by the year 2020 (Aichi Biodiversity Target 11). Special emphasis is placed on areas of high ecological importance; however, researchers warn that a frenzied race to hit numerical targets risks ignoring impact and short-changing the underlying conservation goal.

Impact on species and ecosystems is broadly recognised as the crucial measure for protected areas by scientists, conservationists, and policymakers, but current policy discussions around global protected area targets continue to focus heavily on extent under protection, rather than outcomes for conservation.

“Using size alone to measure conservation success is like counting the beds in a hospital and ignoring whether or not the patients are getting better,” said Louise Glew, global lead scientist at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and contributing author on the paper.

“We don’t just need more protected areas, we need to maximize our return on protected area investments. This means parks and reserves established in the right places, protecting as many species, habitats, and ecological functions as possible.”

The danger of so-called “paper parks” – protected areas that exist on maps but fail to deliver significant conservation benefits – extends beyond just local inefficiencies, say the authors. Their establishment often leads to an exaggerated public perception of success, fostering complacency and excusing inaction elsewhere. Alternatively, these areas’ lack of demonstrable conservation impact can reinforce arguments against protecting other areas – often ones of critical ecological importance.

“The way international policy targets are currently designed, we risk ‘locking-in’ a globally protected area estate designed to maximize area, not impact, particularly in countries where public or political appetite for expansion of parks and reserves is limited,” said Dr Barnes.

“By creating parks with limited impact, we reduce the benefits people see, and with that lose social license for conservation."

The researchers argue that policymakers, governments, and NGOs must stop measuring protected area success on size alone and start talking about things like how many fish will stay in the sea to grow and reproduce, or how many pangolins might be saved from wildlife trade.

Importantly, the upcoming renegotiation of the CBD Targets in 2020 provides a critical window of opportunity to ensure future protected area establishment is smartly targeted to achieve global conservation goals.

“If we want future conservation targets to focus on measurable outcomes beyond area, we need to act now” said Dr Glew.

“We know we can’t protect everything, so let’s make sure what we do protect gives us the biggest return possible.”

The research is published in Nature.

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