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Protected areas vulnerable to growing emphasis on food security

 

IMAGE: The image of a female Asian elephant in a tea plantation on the fringes of Kaziranga
National Park in India, bordering the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot, exemplifies
potential impacts to endangered species…
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Credit: Image courtesy of Sashanka Barbaruah-Wildlife Trust of India

Protected areas are critical to mitigating extinction of species; however, they may also be in
conflict with efforts to feed the growing human population. A new study shows that 6% of all
global terrestrial protected areas are already made up of cropland, a heavily modified habitat
that is often not suitable for supporting wildlife. Worse, 22% of this cropland occurs in areas
supposedly enjoying the strictest levels of protection, the keystone of global biodiversity
protection efforts.

This finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by
researchers at the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center
(SESYNC) and National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis ( NIMBioS ) at the
University of Tennessee. In order to comprehensively examine global cropland impacts in

protected areas for the first time, the authors synthesized a number of remotely sensed
cropland estimates and diverse socio-environmental datasets.

The persistence of many native species–particularly habitat specialists (species that depend on
a narrow set of natural systems), rare, and threatened species–is incompatible with conversion
of habitat to cropland, thus compromising the primary conservation goal of these protected
areas. Guided by the needs of conservation end users, the researchers used methods that
provide an important benchmark and reproducible methods for rapid monitoring of cropland in
protected areas.

“Combining multiple remote sensing approaches with ongoing inventory and survey work will
allow us to better understand the impacts of conversion on different taxa,” says lead author
Varsha Vijay, a conservation scientist who was a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC while working
on the study. “Cropland in biodiversity hotspots warrant particularly careful monitoring. In many
of these regions, expanding cropland to meet increasing food demand exposes species to both
habitat loss and increased human-wildlife conflict,” she adds.

Countries with higher population density, lower income inequality, and higher agricultural
suitability tend to have more cropland in their protected areas. Even though cropland in
protected areas is most dominant in mid-northern latitudes, the tradeoffs between biodiversity
and food security may be most acute in the tropics and subtropics. This increased tradeoff is
due to higher levels of species richness coinciding with a high proportion of cropland-impacted
protected areas.

“The findings of this study emphasize the need to move beyond area-based conservation
targets and develop quantitative measures to improve conservation outcomes in protected
areas, especially in areas of high food insecurity and biodiversity” says Lucas Joppa, chief
environmental officer of Microsoft, who has published numerous papers on the topic of
protected area effectiveness but who was not an author on the study.
2021 is a historic “Year of Impact,” when many countries and international agencies are
developing new decadal targets for biodiversity conservation and protected areas. As countries
aim to meet these goals and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, there is an increasing
need to understand synergies and tradeoffs between these goals in order to ensure a more
sustainable future. Studies such as these offer insights for protected area planning and
management, particularly as future protected areas expand into an agriculturally dominated
matrix. Though the study reveals many challenges for the future, it also reveals potential
scenarios for restoration in mid-northern latitudes and for cooperation between conservation
and food programs in regions with both high levels of food insecurity and biodiversity.

“Despite clear connections between food production and biodiversity, conservation and
development planning are still often treated as independent processes,” says study co-author
Paul Armsworth from the University of Tennessee. “Rapid advances in data availability provide
exciting opportunities for bringing the two processes together,” adds Vijay.

###

The paper, “Pervasive cropland in protected areas highlight trade-offs between conservation
and food security,” Varsha Vijay and Paul Armsworth, appears in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences
. doi:10.1073/pnas.2010121118
https://www.pnas.org/content/118/4/e2010121118

The study is based upon work funded by the National Science Foundation (Award No.: DBI-
1639145).

 

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