Protected areas: a hope in the midst of the sixth mass extinction


With the world entering the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, it is time for IUCN and the global conservation community it represents to prioritise the right conservation actions. National parks and other protected areas should be central to our efforts, but with poorer countries unable to pay to protect them it is essential we find effective solutions involving both private and public lands – writes distinguished Kenyan conservationist and IUCN Patron of Nature Richard Leakey.

Zebras and wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

In the current circumstances on our planet, I find it difficult to offer a set of priorities on what we need to do. In every way, I believe that the impact of climate change is likely to be fundamental to the world we know. Our universal expectations of a better tomorrow based on economic growth are probably delusional for the majority of the human species, and I dare say for almost all terrestrial and aquatic forms of life. This scenario is certainly not a new one for planet earth, but it is completely new to humans who have neither seen, nor experienced climate-driven mass extinctions. 

The sixth mass extinction and the human species

To add to our extraordinary position, we are now aware of previous mass extinctions – we have and continue to document the planet's geologic history where there is clear evidence of climate change and its consequences. We seem to be paralysed by these stark messages, and totally unwilling in a general sense to relate to the fact that there is now a sixth major extinction phenomenon underway. The idea that we may be a significant causal factor is gradually being accepted but it is slow, and the very notion that our own species is very much a candidate for extinction, along with the majority of other species great and small, is largely an unacceptable concept. 

Do we have plans to follow as sea level rise accelerates with ice cap melt, and the sea ports and coastal cities everywhere have to be relocated? Do we have the means to relocate? This is not a question for the unborn and unknown generations of humans because it is likely to affect those who are now young. My grandchildren will have children who may well find there is no Boston, Miami, Mombasa, Sydney or the thousands of other seaside cities. These cities seem likely to be under water from sea level rise that could be up to 30 metres over the next one hundred not one thousand years! So, how then do we, the Patrons of Nature, offer advice on protecting nature everywhere on our little planet?

Sea level rises threaten coastal cities such as Mombasa, Kenya. Sea level rises threaten coastal cities such as Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: Sarah0S CC2.0

Whilst I welcome community conservation efforts, I am forced to question whether these efforts can succeed in the longer time frame of even 50 years.

I am increasingly convinced that in the tropics, and particularly in the poorer nations, protecting nature everywhere is an effort with diminishing returns. I believe that protected areas (that is areas of land set aside by governments and governed by national statutes) such as national parks and national forests are the best targets if nature is to be protected. 

Community conservancies or national parks? 

Whilst I understand and welcome the new fad of community conservation efforts and wildlife conservancies, I am forced to question whether these efforts can succeed in the longer time frame of even 50 years. Private rather than public funds should be the backbone of any non­governmental enterprise, and in poor countries, private wealth and not-for-profit investments are challenging to sustain.

Whilst state-owned wildlife land, designated as national parks, is vital, in some countries private land may also be secured by state laws that allow for private ownership of title. Thus an individual can use such land for wildlife and nature protection for the duration of the term of the title and this can be equally as secure as a national park.

Not all countries have constitutional provision for private ownership of land, and instead occupancy and land use are regulated by lease hold. In respect to conservation, this is certainly a better option than group-owned or community-owned land where in time wildlife could be untenable given governance arrangements on community-owned assets.

A giraffe in a private wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. A giraffe in a private wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya.  Photo: Scott Bjelland

In Kenya, where I have some experience, there currently exists a growing potential for conflict. Group-owned conservancies want a ready cash income from their asset, and nature tourism is an obvious low-hanging fruit. As "owner families" realise cash for better homes, school expenses and health, the expectations are that the money from conservation fees, bed nights in lodges, etc., will grow too. Too many tourists and the overcrowding of facilities becomes a problem, as does raising prices, and in time, the use of the land for "conservation" is no longer the "golden egg" it started out as. More children need more fees, better schooling costs more money, and so it goes with the cash needs rapidly exceeding realistic revenues in the longer term.

This may play out over 30 years but probably not much more. So what happened to our original goal of protecting nature on community land conservancies?

National parks and national forests are surely where our greatest effort must be concentrated

On private land individually owned by title, the cost/benefit situation can be more readily analysed, and an element of long-term nature protection is possible and can provide some species with reasonable survival prospects. It is not, however, a realistic global strategy.

Let me return then to national parks and national forests. These are surely where our greatest effort must be concentrated. I would urge that we consider how a new initiative can be driven to better secure these protected areas. Leaving this challenge to individual governments to deal with is unrealistic given poverty and the terrible imbalance between people's needs and nature's needs.

A farmer and his livestock on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. A farmer and his livestock on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo: Pixabay

Perhaps it is time for the Patrons of Nature to put forward once again the idea that the world cannot afford to lose protected areas. At the same time we should accept that the poorer economies cannot afford the measures to protect them. Saving endangered species is a short term public relations and fundraising exercise which, whilst doing good, is not addressing the bigger questions.

Nobody can expect to protect nature everywhere for all time and it is time to prioritise our efforts. The broad range of conservation initiatives need to be ranked and prioritised by scientific assessment of the crisis we face. Climate change means all change and when humanity starts to see seaside cities going under the sea with their economies, nature will have a very muted voice if one at all.

I do believe that IUCN and we, its Patrons of Nature, can rise to the challenge, but in truth, I fear I also have to ask the last question –"Can we?"

Climate change
Protected areas

Richard Leakey

Dr Richard Leakey is a prominent Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He is known for extensive fossil finds related to human evolution and for his efforts to preserve the wildlife of the African continent. He is currently Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, and Founder and Chair of the Turkana Basin Institute, a Kenya-based research facility focused on palaeontology, archaeology and geology. Dr Leakey is also an IUCN Patron of Nature.  


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I am glad that this area is being protected because it's essential to preserve this area for the future. If these animals die, then the future generations won't be able to see these animals live, and I don't that should happen.

African is the last continent with it's megafauna still intact. But during the last 30 years development has taken off at a pace never seen anywhere on planet earth before. We are witnessing wildlife population declines, environmental degradation, loss of forests, desertification, and over grazing. The problem is that the parks and reserves, that were set aside for nature and conservation are now being used for development of minerals, water, energy, and infrastructure. The recent construction of the new Standard Gauge Railway across Kenya's largest park Tsavo and Kenyans iconic city park Nairobi send a chilling message. We must accept a few obvious truths, environmental degradation will continue to accelerate with rapid industrial development in Africa as western and Eastern nations increasingly look to the continent for resources including food. The human population growth trends in Africa will shift as people become better educated and wealthier and so a demographic bulge will appear in our population graphs. If the economic growth delivers riches to people before they become old, we will have a population that, like Europeans and Americans will appreciate nature. But today's people in my country Kenya who live in wilderness areas, view wildlife mainly as a threat and a cost to their economic aspirations. Kenya, and Africa must develop and implement a strategic approach to securing enough of our unique wildlife heritage in parks to prevent extinctions, and to create source populations for future restocking just as UK, USA and most of Europe have done. Some of our unique wildlife is found only on community and private land, and some properties will be critical to see our wildlife survive through the climate induced changes of the next 30 or so years of development. So we must find financial instruments to prioritize those places that are critical buffer zones and corridors for movement and migrations.

Really, about this, humans are destroying the balance of nature quickly ...

I think Richard Leakey’s strategic vision is entirely sound and the time frame is not worth debate when the outcome seems inevitable. It is surely a win-win goal for national parks, community lands and private land owners to cooperate in two contexts - best practice of land use and conservation actions. The communities have to be an equal partner in any deal. The law must protect all parties in this context and the vital partner is private investment. There is no chance that private landowners will engage in a partnership of this nature unless the national parks and community lands receive substantial funding to enable a level playing field for all stakeholders. The sort of capital investment needed is of a scale undreamed of by conservationists but a fraction of current global investment. Scale is everything to match Richard’s vision. The returns to investors at scale could look surprisingly attractive

One essential element to enable such a collaborative venture to succeed is an enabling framework of information sharing and independent monitoring of outcomes and consequences to build trust and confidence between stakeholders who are quite separate in culture and vision at present

Richard’s strategic vision is what is now needed to get the heavyweights of investment to take an interest. Leading with conservation alone is not going to work. Describe the opportunity as better land use and increased ROI and the by-products of employment, reduced friction and wildlife conservation will all benefit

Leakey writes: "My grandchildren will have children who may well find there is no Boston, Miami, Mombasa, Sydney or the thousands of other seaside cities. These cities seem likely to be under water from sea level rise that could be up to 30 metres over the next one hundred not one thousand years!"

Leakey has been right in being sceptical toward what he hears a number of times. On this point, he is referring to some prediction that is wildly more pessimistic than the predictionsof the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change according to which "we can expect the oceans to rise between 11 and 38 inches (28 to 98 centimeters) by 2100" (IPC, 2013) or "more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500" (Nature volume 531, pages 591–597 (31 March 2016)). And both these models are deeply flawed: it cannot reasonably be denied that the main continuous data series used by the IPCC to evaluate global mean surface temperature showed an approximately two-decade "pause" or "hiatus" starting around 2000, which deviated from the predictions of all the many general circulation models (more than 100 simulations from 41 climate models) that were calibrated from the same data series on data prior to 2000. For example, see Fyfe et al., Nature Climate Change 6, 224–228 (2016). doi:10.1038/nclimate2938 . Or see the papers of IPCC itself.

Denis G. Rancourt, PhD,writes: "It was no easy task to arrive at the most cited original estimated rate of increase of the mean global surface temperature of 0.5 C in 100 years. [.....] for example, land based and sea based measurements and the use of different temperature proxies that are in turn dependent on approximate calibration models. Even for modern thermometer readings in a given year, the very real problem of defining a robust and useful global spatio-temporal average Earth-surface temperature is not solved, and is itself an active area of research. This means that determining an average of a quantity (Earth surface temperature) that is everywhere different and continuously changing with time at every point, using measurements at discrete times and places (weather stations), is virtually impossible; in that the resulting number is highly sensitive to the chosen extrapolation method(s) needed to calculate (or rather approximate) the average. [...]"

Leakey starts with the confession ..." I find it difficult to offer a set of priorities on what we need to do. "

The above data suggest we need to prioritise local & regional solutions to our environments, and the focus on national parks and national forests looks like a good intuition.

I run 40 websites on wild Africa. Including the facebook site "Africa" and "Africa best of wild Africa" I believe it will take a worldwide effort with all or most countries particpitating if we want to save many if not most of the reserves and the majestic animals of Africa. Sadly we are way behind and have a lot of work to do. Sadly I'm not confident of sucess but hopefull.


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