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Expert Voices

Why 'Protected Lands' Too Often Lose Protection (Op-Ed)

Two African elephants, ivory
Two African elephants in the wild. (Image credit: Copyright Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.)

Roopa Krithivasan is a social scientist at WWF. Working with the Conservation Science Program's social science group, she helps examine patterns, trends, causes and implications of protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD). Prior to this role, she worked as a field assistant in Madagascar and a human-wolf conflict researcher in India. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

A lot of great conservation science happens out in the field. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is involved in efforts ranging from tracking key species movements to community collaborations that improve human lives and the environment. But there's a side to science at WWF with less visibility — the important work that happens when scientists are back in Washington, D.C., sitting at their desks.

Research conducted in the office can help provide invaluable conservation insights. A few years ago, WWF started one such "desk-based" study to better understand what happens to national parks, nature reserves and other protected areas after they are established. Protected areas are regions designated or managed for conservation purposes and conventional wisdom suggests that once one is created, it will continue into perpetuity.

But by poring over thousands of documents, reports and maps — and speaking with experts from around the world — our team found this is not always the case. Our detailed analysis identified a poorly understood but widespread phenomenon that was affecting protected areas globally: Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement (PADDD). That is, protected areas sometimes go through a legal process that makes them weaker (downgrading), smaller (downsizing), or eliminates them completely (degazettement).

WWF's new research looks at when and why PADDD happens in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean — regions that are particularly important to our conservation work. We identified 543 instances of PADDD across 57 countries, affecting around 200,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) — roughly the size of Spain.

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So why does PADDD happen? And what does it mean for conservation?

Sometimes PADDD is a way to restore lands to indigenous communities, or to allocate land more efficiently for conservation. More often though, PADDD is a response to local land pressures and land claims, or the result of industrial-scale extraction and production that may present a challenge to conservation goals. There is clearly more to learn about PADDD, and how it affects the places we care about.

There are limits to what my colleagues and I can do from our desks here in Washington. Despite putting a lot of work into collecting information about PADDD, we realized there's still a lot of missing information out there. To tackle this problem, WWF launched the website last year. This "wiki" style map-based website helps users learn about PADDD and allows them to add their own PADDD data. Since its launch, more than 6,000 people from 143 countries have visited the site to learn about PADDD, or to add new information.

WWF is now sharing its validated data with the public. As a result, scientists anywhere can download the data on PADDD. Sitting at their desks, they can use the data for their own analyses that will help all of us better understand PADDD and its implications.

By engaging with people from all over the world, WWF can provide a richer, more complete picture of one of the biggest issues facing protected areas today.

This Op-Ed was adapted from "PADDD and the Future of Conservation" on the WWF blog Science Driven. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.