What are protected areas, and what are they for?

Protected areas have long played a crucial role in protecting natural landscapes and wildlife, and many consider them to be one of the most effective tools in protecting biodiversity.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially defines a protected area as ' a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values'.

As well as conserving biodiversity, protected areas also play a key role in preserving the benefits that nature brings to people. These benefits, often referred to as 'ecosystem services,' include the provision of food and freshwater, the regulation of floods and droughts, nutrient cycling, and recreational opportunities.

Protected areas come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from strict nature reserves where only scientific research is permitted, to areas that allow natural resources to be used – as long as it is at sustainable levels. For example, Yellowstone in the U.S.A. is a large National Park nearly the size of Puerto Rico, spanning across three States. It is managed by the U.S. National Park Service and has a very high level of tourism, with over four million visitors a year.

In contrast, the Il Ngwesi Community Trust in northern Kenya is managed by the local Laikipaik Maasai people with the support of the Northern Rangelands Trust. This protected area is split into a settlement area, a conservation area (which itself consists of a core area which prohibits activities that may degrade the land), and a buffer area where grazing is only allowed at certain time periods.

Yellowstone National Park is widely recognised as the first National Park to be created in the world in 1867. © Elise Belle

Protected areas can also be designated at different levels: national, regional or international. For instance, natural World Heritage sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are internationally recognised as being of the highest global conservation significance. There are currently 241 such sites covering over 293 million ha of land and sea, including such household names as the Galapagos Islands, Okavango Delta, and the Great Barrier Reef

Terrestrial (in green) and marine (in blue) protected areas in the world.

How can protected areas help biodiversity?

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of protected areas in recent years. As of January 2019, there were as many as 245,449 designated protected areas recorded in the world, covering almost 15% of terrestrial land and nearly 7.5% of the global ocean.

However, biodiversity faces many threats throughout the world, including habitat loss and degradation, climate change, and the overexploitation of natural resources from activities such as logging and overfishing.

With proper management and governance, protected areas can alleviate some of those threats by providing legal protection to biodiversity. There are many different ways to govern a protected area, however; while governments still manage the great majority, an increasing number are under private, community or shared governance.

Unfortunately, most protected areas suffer from a severe lack of funding and there is now a crucial need to increase ambitions for protected areas at the international level.

Number and percentage of protected area under each IUCN governance type. Source: World Database on Protected Areas, March 2019.

So there are a wide variety of protected areas in the world, all facing specific management challenges. Factors such as the amount of funding, the level of involvement of local populations, the adequacy of the governance regime, and staff capacity all influence how successful a protected area is at protecting biodiversity. There is also increasing recognition of how areas outside official protected areas can play a complementary role in helping to conserve biodiversity. We will explore these areas, often referred to as 'conserved areas' or 'other effective area-based conservation measures' (OECMs), in one of our next stories.

Elise Belle, Senior Programme Officer, UNEP-WCMC

This story is part of a series of quarterly blog posts published in complement to the Live Protected Planet report, which you are invited to explore at