60 years of tracking our protected world

60 years ago Dag Hammarskjöld, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, established the first list of national parks and equivalent reserves. That list would grow to become the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) and now, with the global community starting to determine the next decade of conservation goals after 2020, it is more important than ever.

The WDPA, a joint project between UN Environment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and managed by UNEP-WCMC, now holds information on nearly a quarter of a million protected areas (245,449, to be precise). It can tell us that the world’s marine protected areas now cover an area greater than the land area of the USA and Russian Federation combined, and that there’s a location in Spain where eight protected area designations overlap.

A new paper published this month delves into some of the ways that the WDPA has affected decision-making around the world, including being used to measure progress towards internationally-agreed targets such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, as well as informing the development of new ones in the run-up to 2020.

It’s also the foundation of many decisions in the public and private sector – NASA uses it to inform natural resource managers about active forest fires in and around protected areas, and the Kenyan Ministry of Health referenced the WDPA in a 2016 report around controlling the spread of malaria.

The WDPA also forms the backbone of a number of other decision-making platforms such as the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool, which helps hundreds of private sector users to take biodiversity into account in their plans and processes.

In order to meet the needs of the decision-makers of the future, the WDPA continues to develop and expand. Over the next few years, it will strengthen links with other databases and initiatives in order to provide more comprehensive information, and it will grow to better represent protected areas under the governance of indigenous peoples, local communities and private actors. In addition, the WDPA will soon encompass areas that make important contributions to conservation despite not meeting the definition of a protected area.

In November 2018, the WDPA’s online platform, Protected Planet, partnered with National Geographic Society and IUCN to launch Protected Planet Live, an interactive interface that includes information on the status of the global protected areas estate, critical for understanding not just where protected areas are, but whether they are well-connected, representative of biodiversity, and effectively- and equitably-managed.

Naomi Kingston, Head of Programme for Conserving Land and Seascapes at UNEP-WCMC, said: “Global initiatives such as the WDPA can lead to real, actionable change. After the designation of the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area in 2017, for example, the governments of New Zealand and the United States of America banned fishing in over a million square kilometres of the protected area in an attempt to preserve over 16,000 species, including the Adelie Penguin and Minke Whale.

“We hope to continue to work with our incredible partners for many years to come, harnessing our collective knowledge and expertise to support the global community as we focus on driving forwards actionable and realistic, yet ambitious goals for biodiversity conservation.”

“Throughout the month of April, the Protected Planet twitter account has been tweeting people’s favourite protected areas. Please follow @protectedplanet to see them, or use the hashtag #FavouriteProtectedArea to share your own!”

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