World Enviroment Day

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Protected areas – safeguarding nature now and into the future

Protected areas like national parks, nature reserves and marine sanctuaries will be at the centre of attention during this year’s World Environment Day. Canada, the official host for the 2017 celebrations, is offering citizens free access to their 46 national parks for a year to encourage them to ‘connect with nature.’

fact 1

Yellowstone National Park in the United States, with its famous geysers and grizzly bears, was established in 1872 and is widely considered the world’s first national park.

What are protected areas?

Protected areas are places dedicated and managed to conserve nature and secure the many other benefits they provide. Many protected areas are controlled by government agencies. Others are owned or managed by individuals, conservation organizations or local communities.

fact 2

The world’s newest protected areas are three marine sanctuaries off Mexico. They protect habitats in the Pacific and Caribbean, including part of the 1,100-kilometre Meso-American Barrier Reef.

Why are they important?

Protected areas play a big role in maintaining a healthy environment for people and nature. Many are ‘biodiversity hotspots’ crucial for slowing the downward spiral in the populations and variety of animals and plants. They are vital to the cultures and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities. They support people’s livelihoods, for instance as breeding grounds that replenish fish stocks. They deliver clean air and water, bring benefits to millions through tourism and recreation, and protect us from climate change and natural disasters.

fact 3

The biggest protected area on land is Northeast Greenland National Park. It is also the world’s most northerly national park. It covers about 972,000 km2, or more than the total area of Tanzania.

How many are there?

According to figures from the World Database on Protected Areas, there are more than 200,000 protected areas on land and inland water such as lakes and rivers. They cover about 20 million km², or 15 per cent of the world’s terrestrial surface. In addition, there are nearly 15,000 marine protected areas with a total area of some 18.5 million km². They cover about 13 per cent of territorial waters and 5 per cent of the global ocean.

Is that enough?

The number and extent of protected areas has shot up in the last 20 years and continues to grow. Under a UN convention, countries aim to have protected areas cover 17 per cent of the world’s land by 2020. We are still about 3 million km² short of that goal. While the 10 per cent target for coastal and marine areas has been surpassed for territorial waters, the figure for oceans is relatively modest.

fact 4

The world’s largest marine protected area reserves 1.55 million km2 of Antarctica’s Ross Sea for species like penguins, whales and krill. UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh is campaigning for the protection of 7 million km2 of the Antarctic – roughly the area of Australia – by 2020.

What is the outlook?

More and more people and governments understand how protected areas support sustainable economic development as well as helping counter pollution, deforestation, and the erosion of biodiversity. In some countries, rising incomes and changing lifestyles mean more people are visiting protected areas and appreciating their riches. This can push policymakers to create more protected areas, and improve the management of existing ones.

fact 5

Venezuela is the country which has protected most of its land.  A total of 53.9 per cent of the South American country is protected, just ahead of European champion Slovenia.

Tell us about your favourite protected area

More statistics, maps and other information are available from the World Database on Protected Areas, a project of the UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.