Saving Land Won’t Save Species

In the scientific community, it’s common knowledge: We are in the midst of a mass extinction period. Species are disappearing from the planet at rates 100 to 10,000 times faster than the average rate of the past 500 million years. Since habitat conservation began in the 1800s, the belief has been that preserving plots of land and ocean will help curb the planet’s rapid biodiversity loss. But a new study published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series reveals that this belief is seriously flawed.

Today, natural habitats are being preserved at a growing rate, as national parks, wildlife refuges, game reserves, marine protected areas and wildlife sanctuaries. There are already over 100,000 such protected areas, covering about 7.3 million square miles of the earth, but it still falls drastically short of the 30% total coverage that scientists say will help preserve species and their habitats. Only 5.8% of land and 0.08% of oceans are currently protected. And the report clearly shows that while conservation area is increasing worldwide, biodiversity is declining just as rapidly.

Even if land and ocean protection were all it took to curb biodiversity loss, the system is riddled with problems that have yet to be resolved. For one, most land-based preservation areas are less than one square kilometer, which is not enough space to sustain larger species, according to the study. These pockets of preserved land are also isolated, with no land bridges for migrating species and broader ecosystems. Land protection helps with habitat loss and exploitation, but it can’t prevent other factors driving species loss, like invasive species, pollution to natural resources and the impacts of climate change.

When actually put into practice, protected land is just as flawed as the concept behind it. Governments are chronically under-funded—by up to $18 billion a year, according to the report—and cannot maintain the protection needed for areas of conservation. This opens up lands to poaching, illegal logging and fishing, habitat destruction, and more. These areas are only protected on paper, and that isn’t enough.

While there are problems with preservation now, there are also foreseeable problems with it in the future. The human population continues to increase at an exponential rate, and is projected to jump from 7 billion this year to 9 billion in 2035. As the population increases, so does the scale of its demands on finite natural resources. The world has already seen a rapid decline in biodiversity as a result, according to the paper. We are quickly exceeding the limits of what the planet can provide and replace. But with the increased need for food and other resources, especially as demand increases with population, the pressure to increase production hurts preservation. Many areas set aside for conservation have already been encroached by industries and agriculture in areas desperate to keep up with demand. It is a problem that will almost certainly worsen as resources grow more scarce.

“We are just taking too much—managing forests in such as way as they degrade, same with coastal waters, and we have to stop doing this as a species,” Peter Sale, a co-author of the report from the Canadian Institute for Water, Health and the Environment, told the BBC. “We’re talking about losing 50% of species in the next half century—that’s faster than any previous mass extinction event—and anybody who thinks we can go through a mass extinction and be perfectly fine is just deluding themselves.”

The report suggests that, rather than focusing so narrowly (and ineffectively) on protected areas, we should focus on the epidemic problems of overconsumption and human overpopulation. But Camilo Mora, another co-author of the report from the University of Hawaii, emphasized that the paper is not an attack on the conservation movement. “We’re definitely not saying we shouldn’t protect areas,” he told BBC. “The problem is that we’re investing all our human capital into those areas.” The report itself provides no suggested solution to the problem, but by improving conservation efforts, as well as addressing broader, underlying causes of biodiversity loss, there may still be some hope.