A new study appearing in the journal Nature Communications finds that that less than ten percent of the world’s protected areas are connected, and that increased isolation, due to human threats such as land clearing for agriculture, mining, and urbanization, is limiting the ability of the global protected area estate to prevent further biodiversity loss.

The study, by an international team from the University of Queensland, WCS, the European Commission Joint Research Centre, and other academic institutions, assessed the connectivity of protected areas by mapping the distribution of relatively undisturbed land areas between protected areas globally.

They found that while approximately 40 percent of the terrestrial planet is intact, only 9.7 percent of Earth’s terrestrial protected area network can be considered structurally connected.

 Said lead author Michelle Ward, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences: “These findings are extremely alarming. This means that more than 90 percent of protected areas are isolated in a sea of human activities.”

Protected areas are vital for the protection and survival of plants, animals and ecosystems, and when they include and are connected by intact, healthy habitat, they allow species to migrate, escape danger such as fires, and track their preferred microclimates under rapid climate change. 

The Member States of the UN (all of the world’s national governments) as well as governments that are Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, have agreed that the global protected area network must be well connected and cover 17 percent of land. This study shows, however, that only nine countries and territories (4.6 percent of all countries and territories) have met this goal, based on national reporting, and at the same time maintain more than 50 percent connectivity across their protected area network.

Added Ward: “The positive side is that our study provides a common framework - previously absent- for countries and territories to assess the connectivity performance of their existing and future terrestrial protected areas, with the advantage of using available information and metrics.”

Senior co-author Professor James Watson of UQ and the Wildlife Conservation Society said that these findings highlight the need for not only better placement of future protected areas, but also much greater emphasis on wide-scale habitat protection and restoration efforts to ensure connectivity beyond the protected area borders.

Said Watson: “Protected areas cannot be considered the end game for conservation. The fact is most nature lives beyond the protected area boundary. We need national and global conservation goals that address the whole of landscape conservation, and targets that halt the destruction of habitat between protected areas. Efforts are underway through the Convention on Biological Diversity, through a new Global Biodiversity Framework, to increase ambition to commit to protection of at least 30 percent of land and 30 percent of ocean areas. That is a laudable and scientifically necessary goal, but nature has no chance if it is to survive in just 17 or even 30 percent of the world.”

The authors said the study provides essential information for conservation and development planning, and can help guide future national and global conservation agendas.