Establishment of wildlife and ecosystem preserves is one of the key tools in conservation efforts (Figure 21.16). A preserve is an area of land set aside with varying degrees of protection for the organisms that exist within the boundaries of the preserve. Preserves can be effective for protecting both species and ecosystems, but they have some serious drawbacks.
A simple measure of success in setting aside preserves for biodiversity protection is to set a target percentage of land or marine habitat to protect. However, a more detailed preserve design and choice of location is usually necessary because of the way protected lands are allocated and how biodiversity is distributed: protected lands tend to contain less economically valuable resources rather than being set aside specifically for the species or ecosystems at risk. In 2003, the IUCN World Parks Congress estimated that 11.5 percent of Earth’s land surface was covered by preserves of various kinds. This area is greater than previous goals; however, it only represents 9 out of 14 recognized major biomes and research has shown that 12 percent of all species live outside preserves; these percentages are much higher when threatened species are considered and when only high quality preserves are considered. For example, high quality preserves include only about 50 percent of threatened amphibian species. The conclusion must be that either the percentage of area protected must be increased, the percentage of high quality preserves must be increased, or preserves must be targeted with greater attention to biodiversity protection. Researchers argue that more attention to the latter solution is required.
A biodiversity hotspot is a conservation concept developed by Norman Myers in 1988. Hotspots are geographical areas that contain high numbers of endemic species. The purpose of the concept was to identify important locations on the planet for conservation efforts, a kind of conservation triage. By protecting hotspots, governments are able to protect a larger number of species. The original criteria for a hotspot included the presence of 1500 or more species of endemic plants and 70 percent of the area disturbed by human activity. There are now 34 biodiversity hotspots (Figure 21.17) that contain large numbers of endemic species, which include half of Earth’s endemic plants.
There has been extensive research into optimal preserve designs for maintaining biodiversity. The fundamental principles behind much of the research have come from the seminal theoretical work of Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson published in 1967 on island biogeography. 1 This work sought to understand the factors affecting biodiversity on islands. Conservation preserves can be seen as “islands” of habitat within “an ocean” of non-habitat. In general, large preserves are better because they support more species, including species with large home ranges; they have more core area of optimal habitat for individual species; they have more niches to support more species; and they attract more species because they can be found and reached more easily.
Preserves perform better when there are partially protected buffer zones around them of suboptimal habitat. The buffer allows organisms to exit the boundaries of the preserve without immediate negative consequences from hunting or lack of resources. One large preserve is better than the same area of several smaller preserves because there is more core habitat unaffected by less hospitable ecosystems outside the preserve boundary. For this same reason, preserves in the shape of a square or circle will be better than a preserve with many thin “arms.” If preserves must be smaller, then providing wildlife corridors between them so that species and their genes can move between the preserves; for example, preserves along rivers and streams will make the smaller preserves behave more like a large one. All of these factors are taken into consideration when planning the nature of a preserve before the land is set aside.
In addition to the physical specifications of a preserve, there are a variety of regulations related to the use of a preserve. These can include anything from timber extraction, mineral extraction, regulated hunting, human habitation, and nondestructive human recreation. Many of the decisions to include these other uses are made based on political pressures rather than conservation considerations. On the other hand, in some cases, wildlife protection policies have been so strict that subsistence-living indigenous populations have been forced from ancestral lands that fell within a preserve. In other cases, even if a preserve is designed to protect wildlife, if the protections are not or cannot be enforced, the preserve status will have little meaning in the face of illegal poaching and timber extraction. This is a widespread problem with preserves in the tropics.
Some of the limitations on preserves as conservation tools are evident from the discussion of preserve design. Political and economic pressures typically make preserves smaller, never larger, so setting aside areas that are large enough is difficult. Enforcement of protections is also a significant issue in countries without the resources or political will to prevent poaching and illegal resource extraction.
Climate change will create inevitable problems with the location of preserves as the species within them migrate to higher latitudes as the habitat of the preserve becomes less favorable. Planning for the effects of global warming on future preserves, or adding new preserves to accommodate the changes expected from global warming is in progress, but will only be as effective as the accuracy of the predictions of the effects of global warming on future habitats.
Finally, an argument can be made that conservation preserves reinforce the cultural perception that humans are separate from nature, can exist outside of it, and can only operate in ways that do damage to biodiversity. Creating preserves reduces the pressure on human activities outside the preserves to be sustainable and non-damaging to biodiversity. Ultimately, the political, economic, and human demographic pressures will degrade and reduce the size of conservation preserves if the activities outside them are not altered to be less damaging to biodiversity.
Check out this interactive global data system (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/protected_area2) of protected areas. Review data about specific protected areas by location or study statistics on protected areas by country or region.