Scientists find climate change threatens at least 10% protected areas

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Recently, our member Dr. Nawal Shrestha published a research paper entitled “Vulnerability of protected lands in the face of climate and human footprint changes” in Nature Communications, one of the most prestigious and highly regarded peer-reviewed scientific journals of the present time. The study used a multi-dimensional approach, including species vulnerability, climate change and human pressure to assess the vulnerability of 2572 protected areas in China. Their assessment identified nearly 10% protected areas as the most threatened protected areas in China and about one-fifth protected areas as hotspots of climate and anthropogenic vulnerabilities. Although the study was conducted using Chinese protected areas as a test case, the findings have global significance and are useful in designing effective protected area networks worldwide. The study found that the impacts of future climate warming on threatened species are likely to be more severe in species-rich protected areas than in species-poor protected areas, which may lead to disproportionately high risks of species extirpation in species-rich protected areas. Dr. Nawal Shrestha who currently works as a Young Researcher at Lanzhou University is the first author and also the corresponding author of the paper.

Protected areas play a pivotal role in maintaining viable populations of species and minimizing their habitat loss. Since the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, the extent of protected areas has roughly doubled, with over 200,000 protected areas now covering approximately 15% of global land area. The post-2020 global biodiversity framework aims to expand this coverage to 30% by 2030. However, focusing only on the percentage coverage without evaluating the conservation impact of the designated protected areas is less meaningful to achieving reliable biodiversity conservation. Studies have shown that selecting areas by focusing only on quantity are largely ineffective for biodiversity conservation. Therefore, instead of focusing only on fulfilling the quantitative coverage target, countries should preemptively evaluate the efficiency of the designated protected areas to see if the areas that are under protection also have the highest conservation need.

In the current study, the authors developed a framework to quantify the level of threats in protected areas incorporating three dimensions: species vulnerability, climate vulnerability and anthropogenic vulnerability. They classified these protected areas into different threat categories according to their vulnerability scores and identified protected areas requiring the highest conservation attention. Their assessment identified that the species in about 7% PAs (Level 1 and Level 2) in China are likely at risk due to high climate change and habitat loss, and stringent protection measures are urgently required to maintain their effectiveness. Interestingly, the study found that the species vulnerability hotspots have remained climatically unstable in the last 60 years, which is more concerning from a conservation perspective because species vulnerability hotspots currently harbor higher number of threatened species. If we assume this warming trend to increase linearly as it did in the past (and it is highly likely it might), the range sizes of species would shrink further, making species in species vulnerability hotpots even more threatened. Furthermore, both climate vulnerability hotspots and anthropogenic vulnerability hotspots show very negligible overlap with the species vulnerability hotspots of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and plants and this indicates that focusing only on species vulnerability hotspots for spatial prioritization, which is a common global practice, may increase the extinction risks of some rare species surviving in species vulnerability coldspots that are climatically and anthropogenically more vulnerable.


The current study reinforces the need of incorporating climate change and anthropogenic threats together with species vulnerability in future assessments to maximize the conservation efficiency of protected areas. The framework proposed in the current study is useful for identifying vulnerable protected areas globally so that timely proactive measures could be taken to keep the biodiversity and ecosystem intact therein. It could be equally useful in assessing resiliency of global protected lands and in prioritizing areas for their systematic expansion, to meet the post-2020 global biodiversity target.

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