News Release

Nature in need: Half of world’s most important nature sites left unprotected

23 March 2012
Liben Lark (Heteromirafra sidamoensis) Photo © Greg Davis

The world’s governments have committed to increasing the coverage of protected areas by 2020 to address rapid rates of environmental destruction, however, a new study led by BirdLife International, with contributions from IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), shows that only half of the most important sites for wildlife have been fully protected. These findings highlight an urgent need for improved targeting of new and expanded protected areas in order to protect the planet’s wildlife.

“Protected areas are a cornerstone of conservation efforts, and cover nearly 13% of the world’s land surface,” says Dr. Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “In 2010, the world’s governments meeting committed to expanding this to 17% by 2020, with an emphasis on areas of particular importance for nature.” 

New research has found that only half of these important areas are currently protected. Researchers discovered this trend by analyzing the overlap between protected areas and two worldwide networks of important sites for wildlife: Important Bird Areas, which comprise more than 10,000 globally significant sites for conserving birds; and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, which include 600 sites holding the last remaining population of highly threatened vertebrates and plants. 

“Shockingly, half of the most important sites for nature conservation have not yet been protected,” says Dr. Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Global Research and Indicators Coordinator. “Only one-third to one-fifth of sites are completely protected—the remainder are only partially covered by protected areas. While coverage of important sites by protected areas has increased over time, the proportion of area covering important sites, as opposed to less important land for conservation, has declined annually since 1950.”

With governments committed to halting the extinction of threatened species and expanding protected areas, goals could be achieved and local communities could benefit by focusing new protected areas on the networks of sites considered to be the most important places for wildlife. For example, establishment of a protected area on the Liben Plain in Ethiopia would help to safeguard the future of the Critically Endangered Liben Lark, (Heteromirafra sidamoensis) which is found nowhere else. Similarly, designation of a proposed reserve in the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti would protect 15 highly threatened frog species that are restricted to this single site.

“By using the IUCN Red List Index to measure changes in the status of species, and linking this to the degree of protection for important conservation sites,” says Butchart. “We believe that protection of important sites may play an important role in slowing the rate at which species are driven towards extinction: by 50% for birds, if at least half of the Important Bird Areas at which they occur are protected, and by 30% for birds, mammals and amphibians restricted to protected areas compared with those restricted to unprotected or partially protected sites.”

In addition to designating a comprehensive network of protected areas, governments must ensure that reserves are adequately managed. It is estimated that this would cost roughly US$23 billion per year—more than four times the current expenditure. However, in countries with low or moderately low incomes, increased management funding would require less than one-tenth of this sum—double what is currently spent. Such sums may seem large, but are tiny by comparison to the value of the benefits that people obtain from biodiversity. Ecosystem services, such as pollination of crops, water purification and climate regulation, have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year.

“Adequately protecting and managing Important Bird Areas and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites will help to prevent extinctions, safeguard the benefits that people derive from these sites, and contribute towards countries meeting their international commitments on protected areas,” says Butchart. “Some countries are already leading the way, with governments using these site inventories to inform designation of protected areas, for example in Madagascar, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and in the European Union. We encourage other governments to follow these examples as they expand their protected area networks and maximize the effectiveness of nature protection.”

Issues involving species survival, protected areas and conservation will be discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Republic of Korea, from 6 to 15 September 2012.


For more information, please contact:

  • Maggie Roth, IUCN Media Relations, m +1 202 262 5313, e

The designation of a proposed biosphere reserve in the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti would protect 15 highly threatened frog species. Photo © Sam Turvey

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