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Evaluating the effectiveness of protected areas for conserving nature

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posted on 2023-08-11, 02:11 authored by Victoria Graham

Protected areas aim to conserve nature, ecosystem services, and cultural values in a changing environment. Three decades of terrestrial and marine protected area expansion has been driven by an increased awareness of the importance of protecting these values. Despite this expansion, populations of vertebrates have declined by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016, the extent of ‘healthy’ forests has shrunk to 40% of pre-human extent, and ecosystem extent and condition has experienced a 47% reduction against estimated natural baselines. Forests have gone beyond the precautionary ‘safe limit’ for land-system change, meaning that the natural regulation of the planet’s climate is at risk, which erodes the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life. Expanding the coverage of protected areas alone is not sufficiently conserving animal populations in the wild, nor their habitats. The level of protection achieved against logging, poaching, climate change, pollution, invasive species and other threats is dependent on adequate investment in management activities, as well as social, environmental and economic influences. An inadequate level of enquiry has addressed what happens before and after establishing a protected area to achieve success. Understanding why protected areas are (or are not) conserving habitats, species and ecosystems is a research priority of immediate global significance.

The goal of this thesis is to improve the measurement of protected area quality and our understanding of how terrestrial protected areas can be managed more effectively to achieve conservation objectives. The geographic scope of this thesis covers terrestrial protected areas in the Asia-Pacific region. Through the six chapters in this thesis, my primary goal was to build an evidence base for how effectively terrestrial protected areas are being managed, what key factors are linked to their success, and where management and planning can be strengthened. By bringing together datasets on management levels, actual and optimal budgets, forest cover and biodiversity, I was able to detect regional patterns between factors associated with positive biodiversity outcomes. In the data poor region of Southeast Asia, I augmented gaps with datasets shared by local researchers and practitioners. This approach allowed me to highlight trends at a jurisdictional scale that account for the varied socio-political and economic pressures of individual countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chapter 1 is a synthesis of the global state of biodiversity and tropical forests, and a summary of prominent conservation policies, agreements and strategies. In this chapter, I also introduce the concepts, terminology and indicators used to evaluate protected area effectiveness, including the four pillars to effective protected areas. By reviewing the literature on protected area effectiveness, I find strong evidence of protected areas effectively conserving forest habitats, however, the reasons for large geographic variance in effectiveness between sites, countries and regions is unclear. Less evidence exists on how effectively protected areas conserve animal populations across all regions, particularly for data poor regions.

In Chapter 2, I investigate how effective the protected area network in NSW, Australia is in protecting species now and under future climates, and highlight where it could be strengthened to meet strategic conservation objectives around climate change. In Chapter 3, I identify the management dimensions that are most influential on animal population trends in 12 Southeast Asian protected areas using spatial analysis and modelling. By applying a linear model that incorporates management, socio-political and environmental factors, I find that the levels of management resourcing and government transparency are positively correlated with biodiversity populations, while animal body size is negatively correlated. In Chapter 4, I quantify the impact of protection on reducing deforestation and carbon emissions in protected areas using a counterfactual study design. I find that protected areas withstood deforestation pressure three times more effectively than the analogous unprotected landscape, accounting for their non-random location. In Chapter 5, I review the literature to identify the major sources of funding for protected areas in Southeast Asia, and evaluate the volume of funding allocated from international sources across operations at a national and site-level. In Chapter 6, I discuss the potential role of REDD+ for leveraging more finance for tropical protected areas.

Collectively, this thesis provides guidance to international, regional and local governing bodies and practitioners on where and how to improve elements of protected area strategic design, planning and management to ultimately achieve better conservation outcomes in the Asia-Pacific region. The work revealed several important insights. First, increased management presence, along with government transparency, are linked to stable and increasing animal populations in protected areas. Funding could be scaled-up to achieve more widespread conservation objectives in protected areas across Southeast Asia, specifically protected areas with threatened biodiversity, remnant forest cover, facing high pressure to illegally clear land and harvest wildlife, and poor levels of funding. Second, Southeast Asian protected areas are achieving reduced rates of deforestation and carbon emissions relative to matched counterfactual sites, and protected areas that had completed management effectiveness reporting conserved significantly more forest cover and forest carbon stocks, than those that had not. Our ability to understand all aspects of protected area effectiveness is constrained by data quality and access issues. Attempting to link conservation outcomes to management effectiveness datasets was severely restricted to a small subset of protected areas that had conducted and shared management survey responses. However, a focused effort to attain a larger sample from a data poor region did bring new information to light.

Increasing our understanding of how to improve protected area planning, design, and management will support governments and other land managers to ensure the protected areas they manage can realize their full potential and achieve better conservation outcomes. As evidence of conservation outcomes is an essential reporting metric for international funding bodies like the Global Environmental Facility and Word Bank, stronger examples of links between management and positive conservation impacts may ultimately foster greater financial support for conservation in regions where support is urgently needed.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. General Introduction -- Chapter 2. Prioritizing the protection of climate refugia: Designing a climate-ready protected area network -- Chapter 3. Management resourcing and government transparency are key drivers of biodiversity outcomes in Southeast Asian protected areas -- Chapter 4. Southeast Asian protected areas are effective in conserving forest cover and forest carbon stocks compared to unprotected areas -- Chapter 5. Disentangling the protected area under-resourcing trap: Barriers to meeting the unmet financial needs of protected areas -- Chapter 6. Reducing emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation -- Chapter 7. General Discussion -- References. General References (not covered in individual chapter reference lists) -- Appendix A. Chapter 3 Supplementary Information -- Appendix B. Chapter 4 Supplementary Information


Thesis by publication

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Michael Chang


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