Protected area connectivity: conservation requires movement

17 May 2018

Protected areas (PAs) play a special role on Earth: they are key reservoirs of healthy ecosystems with high species richness, genetic diversity, and invaluable ecosystem services derived from natural habitats. Designating protected areas in larger number or size is, however, not enough. A crucial ingredient of effective strategic planning in PA designation is the removal of bottlenecks preventing species movements: highways, dams, fences, deforested areas, intensive agriculture and many other barriers that make wildlife species movements difficult or impossible.

Without movement, animal, plant and genetic species are confined in isolated habitat patches at high risk of genetic variability loss and inbreeding depression. Isolation gives species no chances to escape or recolonize after disturbances (fires, droughts, etc.) nor to adapt to climate change by shifting their ranges to alternative, climatically suitable, areas (typically at higher latitudes or altitudes).

The deleterious effects of the isolation of species and populations can propagate through life and food chains into negative impacts for other animal and plant species, for example, those depending on seed dispersal by animals. It also affects negatively the provision of ecosystem services, thus shrinking the capacity of natural ecosystems to fulfill human needs.

Ecological corridors ensure long-term species survival by allowing species to disperse and migrate.

Researchers named the possibility of animal species, genes, seeds, and pollen to move as ‘connectivity’ of protected areas: ‘well-connected’ systems of protected areas are cornerstones of international strategies for biodiversity conservation.

The international community agrees on the urgency of conserving at least 17% of terrestrial areas with ‘well-connected’ and ‘well-managed’ PA systems by 2020 (Aichi Target 11). 

However, until less than one year ago, no indicator or quantitative criterion was in place to track progress towards this target. By focusing on PA coverage, performance and efficiency, previous research was saying little on how ‘well-connected’ protected area networks are in a country and at the global scale.

The JRC has been the first to create a global indicator of protected area connectivity: the Protected Connected (ProtConn) indicator quantifies the percentage of protected connected lands in a given country or ecoregion and differentiates across unprotected, protected and transboundary categories of connecting lands. 

Fig. 1 Percentage of Protected Connected land by world country. Source: Saura et al. 2018.



The ProtConn indicator allows tracking progress and trends over time. In this manner, countries can identify strategic priorities in line with PA connectivity values and trends.  

It can provide a comprehensive global assessment of country progresses towards the Aichi targets, one of the key pieces of information of the JRC’s Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA), and particularly of the DOPA Explorer 2.0 application.

Many outcomes of DOPA Explorer for all countries will soon be accessible through the BIOPAMA Reference Information System 2.0. 

So far, the world is far from reaching the 17% Aichi target goal: of the global land area, only 7.5% is protected and connected (see Fig.1) and only one third of the world’s countries meet Aichi Target 11.

Overall, ACP countries perform slightly better than the global world average (ProtConn = 8.1 % versus 7.5%).

PA connectivity levels vary greatly across all the 79 ACP countries: top performers are Belize (ProtConn = 35.2%), Namibia (ProtConn = 28.1%) and Bahamas (27.5%), whereas Papua New Guinea (ProtConn = 1.8%), Angola (ProtConn = 2.6%), or Cameroon (ProtConn = 3.0%) underperform the global average of 7.5%. 



Fig.2 Priorities for protected areas by country. Source: Saura et al. 2018.





Fig. 1 Percentage of Protected Connected land by world country. Source: Saura et al. 2018.





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