Protected Areas

Category Ia: Strict Nature Reserve

Protected areas that are strictly set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring.


Primary objective

To conserve regionally, nationally or globally outstanding ecosystems, species (occurrences or aggregations) and/or geodiversity features: these attributes will have been formed mostly or entirely by non-human forces and will be degraded or destroyed when subjected to all but very light human impact.

Other objectives

  • To preserve ecosystems, species and geodiversity features in a state as undisturbed by recent human activity as possible;
  • To secure examples of the natural environment for scientific studies, environmental monitoring and education, including baseline areas from which all avoidable access is excluded;
  • To minimize disturbance through careful planning and implementation of research and other approved activities;
  • To conserve cultural and spiritual values associated with nature.

Distinguishing features

The area should generally:

  • Have a largely complete set of expected native species in ecologically significant densities or be capable of returning them to such densities through natural processes or time-limited interventions;
  • Have a full set of expected native ecosystems, largely intact with intact ecological processes, or processes capable of being restored with minimal management intervention;
  • Be free of significant direct intervention by modern humans that would compromise the specified conservation objectives for the area, which usually implies limiting access by people and excluding settlement;
  • Not require substantial and on-going intervention to achieve its conservation objectives;
  • Be surrounded when feasible by land uses that contribute to the achievement of the area's specified conservation objectives;
  • Be suitable as a baseline monitoring site for monitoring the relative impact of human activities;
  • Be managed for relatively low visitation by humans;
  • Be capable of being managed to ensure minimal disturbance (especially relevant to marine environments).

The area could be of religious or spiritual significance (such as a sacred natural site) so long as biodiversity conservation is identified as a primary objective. In this case the area might contain sites that could be visited by a limited number of people engaged in faith activities consistent with the area's management objectives.

Role in the landscape/seascape

Category Ia areas are a vital component in the toolbox of conservation. As the Earth becomes increasingly influenced by human activities, there are progressively fewer areas left where such activities are strictly limited. Without the protection accompanying the Ia designation, there would rapidly be no such areas left. As such, these areas contribute in a significant way to conservation through:

  • Protecting some of the earth's richness that will not survive outside of such strictly protected settings;
  • Providing reference points to allow baseline and long-term measurement and monitoring of the impact of human-induced change outside such areas (e.g., pollution);
  • Providing areas where ecosystems can be studied in as pristine an environment as possible;
  • Protecting additional ecosystem services;
  • Protecting natural sites that are also of religious and cultural significance

What makes category Ia unique?

Allocation of category is a matter of choice, depending on long-term management objectives, often with a number of alternative options that could be applied in any one site. The following box outlines some of the main reasons why Category Ia may be chosen in specific situations vis-à-vis other categories that pursue similar objectives.

Category Ia differs from the other categories in the following ways:
Category Ib Category Ib protected areas will generally be larger and less strictly protected from human visitation than category Ia: although not usually subject to mass tourism they may be open to limited numbers of people prepared for self-reliant travel such as on foot or by boat, which is not always the case in Ia.
Category II Category II protected areas usually combine ecosystem protection with recreation, subject to zoning, on a scale not suitable for category I.
Category III Category III protected areas are generally centred on a particular natural feature, so that the primary focus of management is on maintaining this feature, whereas objectives of Ia are generally aimed at a whole ecosystem and ecosystem processes.
Category IV Category IV protected areas protect fragments of ecosystems or habitats, which often require continual management intervention to maintain. Category Ia areas on the other hand should be largely self-sustaining and their objectives preclude such management activity or the rate of visitation common in category IV. Category IV protected areas are also often established to protect particular species or habitats rather than the specific ecological aims of category Ia.
Category V Category V protected areas are generally cultural landscapes or seascapes that have been altered by humans over hundreds or even thousands of years and that rely on continuing intervention to maintain their qualities including biodiversity. Many category V protected areas contain permanent human settlements. All the above are incompatible with category Ia.
Category VI Category VI protected areas contain natural areas where biodiversity conservation is linked with sustainable use of natural resources, which is incompatible with category Ia. However large category VI protected areas may contain category Ia areas within their boundaries as part of management zoning.


Issues for consideration

  • There are few areas of the terrestrial and marine worlds which do not bear the hallmarks of earlier human action, though in many cases the original human inhabitants are no longer present. In many cases, category Ia areas will therefore require a process of restoration. This restoration should be through natural processes or time-limited interventions: if continual intervention is required the area would be more suitable in some other category, such as IV or V.

  • There are few areas not under some kind of legal or at least traditional ownership, so that finding places that exclude human activity is often problematic.

  • Some human actions have a regional and global reach that is not restricted by protected area boundaries. This is most apparent with climate and air pollution, and new and emerging diseases. In an increasingly modified ecology, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain pristine areas through non-intervention.

  • Many sacred natural sites are managed in ways that are analogous to 1a protected areas for spiritual and cultural reasons, and may be located within both category V and VI protected areas.

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