World Commission on Protected Areas

WCPA North Africa, West Asia and the Middle East

A cattle egret in Ichkeul National Park, Tunisia

Imène MelianeIUCN WCPA Regional Vice-Chair North Africa, West Asia and the Middle East



Countries of this Region
Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrein, Egypt, Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, State of Libya, Morocco,Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

Key Issues

The North Africa and the Middle East region is characterised by an arid and semi arid environment. Being at a junction between three continents it is considered as one of the most diverse areas on earth. The region includes the following 22 countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE and Yemen.

The region is characterized by variations in elevation ranging from the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea area (more than 300 m below sea level) to high mountains rising above 3000 m above sea level. The vertical and the horizontal variation from north to south create high biological diversity. The marine components in the region also reflect great diversity, centered on the Mediterranean Sea, but including the Atlantic Ocean, the Red Sea, Persian (Arabian) Gulf, the Arabian Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The variation in ecosystems across the region is reflected by high diversity in flora and fauna. Endemism is considerably high particularly among marine invertebrates and in some hot spots like the Socotra Islands of Yemen.

The region features a unique experience in land management for conserving natural resources, which is the hema system. Hema is an Arabic word, which means an area that is protected. The concept of hema is demonstrated in the practice of setting aside and protecting an area with good vegetation cover. Such an action was usually taken by a governing authority, a group of people (a tribe or a clan), or an individual. Those sites were mostly protected for grazing during drought seasons and in other instances for multiple use such as bee- keeping and for the protection of large trees. Grazing and other uses, such as cutting grasses for fodder, were banned most of the time and only allowed with restrictions and under certain regulations set by those who established or managed the hema.

The practice of hema dates back, in the Arabian Peninsula, to the pre-Islamic era. It probably goes as far back in history as 2000 years ago or maybe more. It developed as an acknowledgment of the need to conserve and wisely use scarce renewable resources.

In 1969, it was estimated that there were more than 3000 hema in Saudi Arabia. Later, a survey was conducted in 1984 in the mountain areas west of Saudi Arabia (where most of the hema existed) and only 71 hema were found, under various degrees of protection.

The main aim of the WCPA regional program is to ensure that protected areas effectively fulfil their role in conserving biodiversity and to contribute to sustainable development. Moreover, the program aims to assist governments of the region in meeting their obligations regarding the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity and other related conventions. A WCPA Regional Action Plan has been completed and will be considered part of the next IUCN regional programme.


The objectives of the WCPA Regional Action Plan and the associated project proposals for North Africa and the Middle East, are:

  • To develop and implement protected area training programmes in the region targeted largely at the managers of particular sites;
  • To develop more effective and appropriate protected area legislation at a national level, which reflect the needs and unique circumstances of each country and is capable of implementation;
  • To develop a number of pilot protected areas in the region as well as guidelines for their more effective establishment and long-term management; and
  • To develop guidelines related to ecotourism and protected areas in the region.


The lack of skilled staff is a major constraint to the effective establishment and management of protected areas in the region. The management of many protected areas falls below acceptable international standards. Such disciplines as protected area planning and management, wildlife management and environmental sociology are not yet widely recognised by the region's academic institutions. One training centre has recently been established in the region, but there are almost no university courses or degree programs in the subjects most closely related to protected area management.

Skills are particularly needed in the following areas:

  • involvement of local stakeholders;
  • conflict resolution;
  • planning and management of protected areas including marine protected areas;
  • application of information arising from research and monitoring programmes; and
  • development of environmental awareness and education programmes. The development of skills must embrace legal and socio-economic as well as ecological aspects of protected area management.

The primary focus of training must be on those directly involved in the management of protected areas, such as upper level managers and administrators, middle level managers, researchers, rangers, and tourist guides, however, there are other important target groups. These should include decision-makers and legislators who work in other agencies but whose decisions may influence the establishment and management of protected areas. They should also include local stakeholders, educators, women, and youth.


The legislative basis for protected areas is still weak in the region. Even though most countries have some protected area legislation, others do not have enough provisions to make creative use of the region's rich heritage of traditional institutions and indigenous conservation practices. There are also few provisions to involve local citizens as participants in the establishment and management of protected areas, or to ensure that any benefits generated from the use of protected areas be equitably shared with the local people. In many instances, implementation and enforcement are given insufficient attention.

Pilot Protected Areas

There is an acute need to expand the protected area systems of the region to represent those biotopes where there is no protection, and to conserve endangered endemic and relict species of plants and animals, as well as species of special ecological, economic, or cultural value. Especially important is the need to conserve those key sites of biological productivity - the wetlands, mountains and woodlands, and the coastal sites - that constitute the habitats of the majority of the region's flora and fauna.

Equally great is the need to manage protected areas or suitable parts of them, in a manner that brings sustainable and tangible benefits to the local people who have in many cases been disadvantaged by their establishment. Such benefits will give these people incentives to become partners in conservation.

Broad agreement and commitment to these objectives exists among conservation agencies within the region. But there is a need for highly successful pilot or "model" protected areas that are effective in conserving the region's biological diversity and at the same time demonstrating how community participation in the management of protected areas can bring tangible sustainable benefits.


One of the most promising ways for protected areas to generate tangible and sustainable benefits is from nature-based tourism. Ecotourism can provide a meaningful incentive and economic justification for conservation, as it depends on the maintenance of unspoiled nature and thriving communities of wild plants and animals. In addition, it can generate an influential and articulate clientele who can serve as advocates for the conservation of protected areas. If it is not managed very carefully, however, nature-based tourism tends to degrade the very resources upon which it depends, and this has been happening in the region.

According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), one of five major tourism trends will be an important growth in adventure tourism and in ecotourism. The same organization also forecasts solid growth in cultural tourism and North Africa and the Middle East are among the regions where this is expected to happen in the near future.

It is, therefore, critical that tourism be carefully planned to ensure that such developments and activities do not compromise the natural and cultural values for which protected areas were established in the first place. This can only be ensured through effective management of these areas. Emphasis also needs to be placed on the development of strong partnerships between protected area agencies and tourism agencies, including commercial operators.


Go to top