Wildlife Conservation in the Face of Climate Change: The Importance of Protected Areas

Mark Altaweel

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Protected Areas (PAs) for wildlife are emerging as critical to enabling threatened and endangered species to recover.

What are protected areas?

Protected areas are defined geographic areas that are managed to protect and preserve natural, cultural, and/or historical resources.

Protected areas are established by governments or other entities with the goal of conserving biodiversity, promoting sustainable development, and providing recreational opportunities for visitors.

Protected areas can take many different forms, including national parks, wildlife reserves, wilderness areas, marine protected areas, and cultural heritage sites.


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What are the benefits of Protected Areas?

Protected areas enable biodiversity and have demonstrated environmental benefits when a balanced ecosystem is allowed to thrive. These areas can also provide economic benefits by promoting tourism and supporting local communities.

A screenshot of the US protected areas web map.
Users can view web maps and statistical charts of areas designated for biodiversity conservation, as well as public lands and waters that provide access to nature, using the Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US) Data Explorer.

How does climate change impact protected areas?

With climate change, there are fears that PAs will be threatened and not be able to perform their function in preserving biodiversity.

A new study shows that protected areas are also likely to better withstand threats from climate change. Furthermore, PAs may be critical in the coming century if many species are to survive habitat and environmental threats. 

Assessing protected areas for amphibians and reptiles under climate change

A recent study of over 14,000 species of amphibians and reptiles in protected areas were investigated using species distribution models. Currently, over 91% of species of amphibians and reptiles are found in these conservation zones.

These species are now forecast to better withstand climate change scenarios around the world. In fact, species outside these zones are more threatened and researchers estimate about 300 amphibian and 500 reptile species may go extinct over the course of this century.

A series of world maps showing areas of species richness and conservation gaps for amphibians and replies.  The species richness map shows areas of high species richness in blue and low richness in yellow.  The gray background of the map has red areas showing conservation gaps.
Bivariate maps (maps A, B) show the correlation between species richness and percent species loss for amphibians and reptiles. Each color change represents a 10% shift in either variable. Blue areas denote climate-robust regions of high species richness, which are expected to suffer low species loss by 2070. Conservation gaps (maps C, D) show areas that fall within the top 20% in terms of species richness and the bottom 20% in terms of future species loss, yet lie outside the protected area network for amphibians and reptiles. Figure and figure description: Mi, C., Ma, L., Yang, M. et al. Global Protected Areas as refuges for amphibians and reptiles under climate change. Nat Commun 14, 1389 (2023), CC BY 4.0.

This highlights the fact that protected areas may need to be enhanced if we are to maximize protection of species found within them.

Analyzing the impact of climate change on amphibian and reptile species

These are the key results from a recent study which used 3.5 million observations and samples from 5,403 amphibian and 8,993 reptile species, where these observations were compiled from online databases, fieldwork, museum collections and publications.

A picture of a brown turtle with its head raised sitting in shallow water surrounded by mud and plant stems.
The Wester pond turtle, Mojave River, Mojave Desert. Photo: Jeffrey E Lovich, USGS, public domain.

Data were then fed into ensemble species distribution models to forecast the likely species to survive in different global regions, using a spatial resolution of 1 x 1 km. Species distribution models correlate environmental factors with species to predict the likelihood of their survival in a particular area.

As environmental characteristics change, then species that do not have optimal circumstances are more likely to lose habitat or suffer population losses.

Species in tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests are most at risk

From the results, it is clear that areas with the least protection are found in tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, where countries are mostly low income. These regions faced the most threats under climate change scenarios and were the most vulnerable for the species studied.[1]  

While the study does not mean protected areas are not vulnerable to climate change, it does demonstrate greater resilience in such regions. This is likely true for amphibian and reptiles as well as other vertebrates.

A call to expand protected areas

In fact, in a previous major study, it was found that PAs may need to be expanded in order for many vertebrate species to best survive climate change. There has been a call for 33.8% of the total land surface area of the world to be under some form of protection, which would exceed the current target of 17% accepted by governments.

In addition to major land masses, expanding protected areas in sensitive countries such as Colombia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and southwest China will be critical for major vertebrate species.

This expansion of PAs also needs to consider which environmental conditions are the most sensitive and beneficial to species, as expansion of PAs without incorporating the most sensitive regions would likely only result in marginal benefits for vertebrate species under climate change.

Expansion of PAs without environmental consideration could result in inadequate niche representation, or areas where such species thrive, for 39.1% of vertebrate species. What this and the other research show is that protection of species needs to not consider environmental niches and target some of the world’s most sensitive regions, particularly around tropical and sub-tropical areas.[2]

Map of currently protected areas

Current protected areas can be found on the Protected Planet website. The data there show that 15.91% of global terrestrial areas are currently protected, while 8.16% of marine areas are protected.

These statistics are constantly being updated, while users can find maps and information about specific areas protected.

A green frog sits on the edge of a pitcher plant.
A green tree frog (Hyla cinerea) perches on the edge of a pitcher plant in an Alabama bog. Photo: Alan M Cressler, USGS, public domain.

What the data show is that many countries lack adequate protection for species. A lack of adequate protection may mean species are under dual threats of climate change and human land use and exploitation.[3]

In many ways, PAs are flawed and often not all species that could be protected to enable a diverse ecosystem are being actively preserved. However, recent research has demonstrated great benefit PAs have for many animal species and that these regions are also relatively resilient to various climate change scenarios.

For the future, the critical results demonstrate these regions not only need continued conservation but should be expanded. In particular, regions in tropical and sub-tropical zones need greater inclusion in PAs given the greater species diversity found in such zones.

These areas will be critical if we are to manage greater resilience in this century for species diversity that are threatened by various anthropogenic factors.

References

[1]    For more on the modeling and assessment of amphibian and reptile species range and threats under different climate change scenarios, see:  Mi, C. et al. Global Protected Areas as refuges for amphibians and reptiles under climate change. Nat Commun 14, 1389 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-36987-y

[2]    For more on vertebrate protection in protected areas and how large regions need to be to provide adequate protection for many species, see: Hanson, J. O. et al. Global conservation of species’ niches. Nature 580, 232–234 (2020).

[3]    For more on protected areas and where they are, see:  https://www.protectedplanet.net/en.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.