Bad habits of protected areas

By Chloë Alexia Metcalfe

Do we ever really think outside the box? Humans love to compartmentalise; for some reason, we feel happier when everything fits neatly into boxes that we can easily label, sort, and monitor if needs be. It happens in all aspects of life, from moral perceptions of what is right and wrong, who we get along with and who we don’t, and even aesthetics of what is beautiful and what is ugly.

Protecting an area for wildlife is no different – it is an attempt to compartmentalise both our world and our actions, so that we feel in greater control of them. We designate some land as protected, and other land as unprotected.

We not only hunt wildlife, but we also fragment habitats, release pollutants, and take far too many natural resources from our planet. In protecting an area we can reduce these human impacts – recognise the damage that they do and offer as compensation a space that is as close to pristine as we can manage.

Studies of protected areas have shown, time and time again, that they not only increase the quantity of animals in a population, but also the number of different species in an area1. They are undoubtably an aid to faunal and floral communities that have previously been damaged by humans.

One thing that we must ask ourselves, however, is in protecting an area are we limiting detrimental human actions, or are we attempting to control and place borders on nature?

Our love of compartmentalisation.
Image copyright Chloё Metcalfe.

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has assigned 7 categories of protected areas that range from the most exclusive of human influence, to being more inclusive of humans and their cultural values. In assigning categories, the IUCN recognises the uniqueness of nature and attempts to advise on best practice based on specific cases.

On the face of it, a protected area appears to be a great way to go about things, in which case – why isn’t all land protected? Apart from the obvious limitations on construction of roads and housing – there are some other shortfalls of protecting an area, two of which we shall look at now.

Displaced communities

If an area of land is afforded Ia or Ib level protection on the IUCN chart (a strict nature reserve or wilderness area), it can mean that local communities that live in the area become displaced. Of course, many protected areas are not classified under this framework, and for those that are, displacement of locals is not often taken lightly. Regardless, there are many case studies where displacement of local communities or the reallocation of their rights has had a severe effect on their livelihoods.

Examples include that of the Sahariya forest community, who saw 1650 of their households removed from the Kuno Sanctuary in India2. This wildlife sanctuary was established to protect deer, antelopes, primates, wild pig, sloth bear, and carnivores such as the leopard and tiger, amongst other wildlife. After the community was displaced, each household saw a 50% decrease in income, mainly due to the lack of access to non-timber forest produce. There was also an increase in poverty, with over 80% of the displaced village living below the poverty line, as opposed to 6.3% in non-displaced villages. This put the Sahariya forest community at a huge disadvantage when trying to integrate with the mainstream economy.

In Peru the establishment of the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve stopped communities accessing many resources they had been dependent on for centuries3. This included their food and building materials, such as pole timber and thatch palm.

Even in marine protected areas, local communities often see changes in their right to access, extract resources, and manage the area4.

I firmly believe that setting up any protected area should involve tapping into the knowledge of locals living in the area, and in return protecting their rights, creating a win-win situation for all. After all, shouldn’t we be learning how to live with nature?

Poor management in protected areas.
Image copyright Chloё Metcalfe.

Wildlife doesn’t know where the borders are

Protected areas have hard borders, but many animals have home ranges or migration routes that fall outside of these. Because of this, some animals will spend part of their time in unprotected lands, leaving them vulnerable to human activities such as wildlife poaching.

If we take the tragic example of Cecil the lion, a big cat who had been radio collared for research by Oxford University, we can see how even though the hunter thought he had paid for legal trophy hunting, he ended up killing a protected animal – it is alleged that Cecil was lured out of a protected area so that the hunt could take place.

In marine protected areas similar circumstances can occur whereby humans can take advantage of protected area boarders. Due to extreme poverty, communities in east Africa often use seine nets – a highly destructive fishing technique, to fish along the borders of marine protected areas5. This method catches up to 70% juvenile fish which can impact the fish community structure and thus the health of the entire protected area.

Vulnerability of wildlife along the borders of protected areas.
Image copyright Chloё Metcalfe.

The future

It’s quite clear to me that having fixed compartments in which conservation takes place has its drawbacks; I believe it would be much more beneficial if conservation took place without the need for segmentation.

Managers of protected areas are constantly learning and because of this the future is looking up. There are now more examples of integration of local communities before any measures are taken, and this approach has generated quite a few success stories, such as the creation of the Barren Isles Protected Area – the largest community managed marine protected area in the Indian Ocean. It is only with increased communication that we can create more sustainable living and learn more about nature. Of course, the ideal would be to have never needed protected areas in the first place; that we could live in harmony with nature… but imagine the world we would live in if all protected areas were removed tomorrow. Are we capable of respecting boundaries if we can’t see them?


[1]Gray, C. L., Hill, S. L. L., Newbold, T., Hudson, L. N., Börger, L., Contu, S., Hoskins, A. J., Ferrier, S., Purvis, A. & Scharlemann, J. P. W. 2016. Local biodiversity is higher inside than outside terrestrial protected areas worldwide. Nature communications, 7: 12306

[2]Kabra, A. 2009. Conservation – induced displacement: a comparative study of two Indian protected areas. Conservation and Society, 7: 249-267

[3]Cardozo, M. 2011. Economic displacement and local attitude towards protected area establishment in the Peruvian Amazon. Geoforum, 42: 603-614

[4]Mascia, M. B. & Claus, C. A. 2008. A property rights approach to understanding human displacement from protected areas: the case of marine protected areas. Conservation Biology, 23: 16-23

[5]Cinner, J. E. 2010. Poverty and the use of destructive fishing gear near east African protected areas. Environmental Conservation 36: 321-326

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