The performance and potential of protected areas

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Originally conceived to conserve iconic landscapes and wildlife, protected areas are now expected to achieve an increasingly diverse set of conservation, social and economic objectives. The amount of land and sea designated as formally protected has markedly increased over the past century, but there is still a major shortfall in political commitments to enhance the coverage and effectiveness of protected areas. Financial support for protected areas is dwarfed by the benefits that they provide, but these returns depend on effective management. A step change involving increased recognition, funding, planning and enforcement is urgently needed if protected areas are going to fulfil their potential.

At a glance


  1. Growth of the modern terrestrial and marine protected area estate.
    Figure 1: Growth of the modern terrestrial and marine protected area estate.

    Growth in protected areas is aligned with a series of key events that have signalled an expansion of objectives over the past 150 years, starting with the establishment of the first formal protected area in 1864 (see Supplementary Table 1). New and increasingly diverse focal objectives have added to, rather than replaced, pre-existing objectives so that the requirements for management of protected areas have expanded over time. The growth was calculated using data obtained from the World Database on Protected Areas1.

  2. Percentage of each terrestrial and marine ecoregion represented in the 2014 protected area estate.
    Figure 2: Percentage of each terrestrial and marine ecoregion represented in the 2014 protected area estate.

    a, The shortfall in protected area coverage of terrestrial ecoregions (n = 827) relative to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) target of 17%. As of 2014, only 300 ecoregions (36%) have more than 17% coverage, with 68 (8%) having less than 1% coverage and 237 (29%) of all ecoregions having less than 5% coverage. b, The shortfall in protected area coverage of marine ecoregions (n = 232) relative to the CBD target of 10%. As of 2014, only 46 (20%) of the marine ecoregions have more than 10% coverage with 107 (46%) having less than 1%. (See Supplementary Methods for details of protected area calculations.)

  3. A global portrait of different forms of decline in government support in terms of protected areas.
    Figure 3: A global portrait of different forms of decline in government support in terms of protected areas.

    Here we provide examples of recent (defined as the past 10 years) decisions made by governments that are leading to a decline in the effectiveness of protected area estates within countries. The blue and green areas show the spatial extent of the global protected area estate as of April 2014 (ref. 1). Examples are well-documented instances of this retreat; it should be noted that many more examples remain poorly documented. More information and additional examples are provided in Supplementary Table 2. PADDD, protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement.


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  1. School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia.

    • James E. M. Watson,
    • Nigel Dudley &
    • Marc Hockings
  2. Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Conservation Program, Bronx, New York 10460, USA.

    • James E. M. Watson &
    • Daniel B. Segan
  3. School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia.

    • James E. M. Watson &
    • Daniel B. Segan
  4. Equilibrium Research, 47 The Quays, Cumberland Road, Spike Island, Bristol BS1 6UQ, UK.

    • Nigel Dudley
  5. UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge CD3 0DL, UK.

    • Marc Hockings

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