At a glance:
Protected areas

Humanity has set aside forests and other ecosystems for conservation for at least 2,500 years, with the first modern national park established at Yellowstone in 1872. Protected areas have since grown to cover much of the globe: the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre now lists more than 102,000 terrestrial and marine sites covering nearly 19 million square kilometres – almost 4 per cent of the Earth. The vast majority are terrestrial, and their establishment is believed to be the biggest deliberate change of land use in history.

Meanwhile 149 sites of ‘outstanding natural value’ are given special legal protection under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, ratified by 176 states. They and other protected areas serve a wide range of purposes, including safeguarding biodiversity and wild resources, providing clean air and water, combating climate change and attracting tourists. A rapidly growing number has been established across national boundaries, acting as catalysts for peace.

It is an immense achievement. But it still leaves much to be done. The protected areas are unevenly spread: one fifth of all the world’s countries have designated less than 1 per cent of their land. There are major gaps; less than a tenth of a per cent of the original forest in the Southern Pacific islands is protected for example, along with less than 1 per cent of the forests of Central Africa’s Cameroon Highlands and of the mangroves of the Gulf of Guinea. More striking still, less than 1 per cent of the seas and oceans that cover 70 per cent of the globe is covered by protected areas.

Many parks exist only on paper, lacking management and legal title. Many that are properly enforced are too small to function effectively. Many more are damaged by threats ranging from poaching to air pollution, from illegal mining and logging to uncontrolled fires – often because they have been set up without the participation of local people, who believe they do not benefit from them. And global warming threatens to erode and destroy their value, as species are unable to cope with the changing climate.

These threats are driven by the forces endangering the world’s environment and security as a whole, such as poverty, overconsumption and overexploitation. The protected areas of the globe will only continue to do their invaluable work if these underlying problems are tackled – and if the local people have reason to value them and participate in their conservation.

Geoffrey Lean

Extent of the world’s protected areas and location of World Heritage sites
The map shows the percentage of each country that is protected, and the location of World Heritage Natural and Mixed Cultural and Natural sites. Some 12.6 per cent of the world’s land area is protected

Growth of protected areas, 1872-2003
Since Yellowstone National Park (United States of America) became the world’s first national park in 1872 (8,991 km2), a further 102,101 areas have been afforded some level of protection, totalling 18,763,407 km2 worldwide

Protected areas by IUCN category, 2003
IUCN - The World Conservation Union defines protected areas as: land and/or sea especi ally dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means, in seven categories:
  • Ia: Strict nature reserve
  • Ib: Wilderness area
  • II: National park
  • III: Natural monument
  • IV: Habitat/Species management area
  • V: Protected landscape/seascape
  • VI: Managed resource protected area.

Some 33 per cent of all sites encompassing 19 per cent of the total area protected are uncategorized by IUCN

World Heritage sites
The Convention on World Cultural and Natural Heritage, established in 1972, lists a total of 754 sites of which 582 are Cultural, 149 are Natural and 23 Mixed Cultural and Natural. The first listing, the Galapagos Islands, was made in 1978. Today, some 35, 17 of which are Natural or Mixed Cultural and Natural sites, are now listed as World Heritage in Danger

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: