Jeremy Hance, a leading environmental journalist, argues that we can make major strides for conservation by making our protected areas bigger:
Most of the world’s protected areas are too small to maintain nature — at least in all its spectacular diversity and complexity.
A study last year, for example, found that 40 percent of parks in snow leopard territory are too tiny to support even one breeding pair of the big cats.
Other research is showing that many small parks don’t sustain viable populations of rare species, protect the most vulnerable species, or maintain valuable ecosystem services — and are likely to suffer heavily with major climate change.
What can be done? Setting up new parks can be difficult, especially in regions where unused land is already scarce.
But conservationists might have a big positive impact by expanding existing parks, or creating corridors to link different parks together.
COLOMBIA’S IMPRESSIVE ADVANCE
For example, in 2013 Colombia expanded its biggest protected area, Chiribiquete National Natural Park, from 1.2 million to 2.8 hectares in size.
And just this month Colombia announced it was increasing two nearby indigenous reserves, the Puerto Sabalo–Los Monos and Monochoa Reserves, collectively doubling their total area.
The two indigenous reserves will link up directly with the enlarged Chiribiquete Park, creating a massive ‘conservation corridor’ exceeding 11 million hectares in total.
JEWEL OF BORNEO
And in Malaysian Borneo, another group of conservationists is setting up buffer areas and refuges to afford greater protection for Danum Valley — a biological jewel and one of the very few areas in Southeast Asia that has never been logged or hunted.
Danum Valley itself spans less than 44,000 hectares, but hundreds of thousands of hectares of surrounding forests—mostly former logging concessions — have been added to bolster and protect Danum Valley.
Ultimately, the goal is to create a contiguous corridor of protected forests that rise from sea level to the highest mountains in Borneo — to provide the complex topographic diversity that provides refugia for species from deadly droughts, heat waves, and other climatic changes.
BIG THINKING NEEDED
Of course, big protected areas need lots of vigilance to ensure they remain protected.
For instance, last year U.S. President Barack Obama hugely expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, near Hawaii, turning it into the largest marine protected area on the planet. But President Trump is already eyeing the newly created reserve for fossil fuel exploration.
But as a strategy for retaining vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife populations, big nature reserves are one of the most vital arrows in the quivers of conservationists.
To take things one step further, last year renowned Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson dropped an idea bomb called “Half Earth”.
Wilson argued emphatically that our current ‘minimalist’ thinking about nature conservation is far too prone to failure.
Instead, he says, we need devote around half of the planet to conservation — even if that involves designing and managing our farming landscapes, timber reserves, indigenous lands, and sprawling urban areas to better sustain important parts of nature, while also striving to create more and bigger protected areas.
To some, Wilson’s idea seems controversial, but many biologists and environmental scientists see it as more common-sense than audacious.
Concepts like Half Earth are convincing many people that minimalist thinking is dangerously defeatist — especially if we aspire to conserve anything like the full richness of Earth’s nature in perpetuity, while also salvaging a livable planet for ourselves.
The bottom line is that we need many more large, viable, and interconnected networks of protected areas than we have at present.
As land-use pressures continue to rise across the planet, we may have to think outside of the box in order to get there.