Vast Expanses of Land Protected, But Not the Seas

DURBAN, South Africa, September 9, 2003 (ENS) - Exactly 102,102 protected areas now exist on Earth according to a newly published list - from Greenland National Park, which at over 97 million hectares is the largest, to thousands of sites smaller than 10 square kilometers.

The list is contained in new report released today at the IUCN World Parks Congress at the Durban International Convention Centre. About 90 percent of these areas have been designated for protection over the past 40 years, but most of them are terrestrial, giving marine conservationists cause for concern.

The report, the most comprehensive ever, was compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in Cambridge, UK in collaboration with the IUCN-World Conservation Union and its World Commission on Protected Areas.


Greenland National Park is the largest protected area on Earth. (Photo courtesy
The list notes 4,116 marine protected areas covering less than 0.5 percent of the planet's seas and oceans. Protecting a representative network of marine areas by 2012, a key agreement made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, will require a great deal of work, the authors suggest.

A first draft of a related publication entitled "State of the World’s Protected Areas," also released at the Congress for comment, is aimed at “concentrating minds” and mobilizing the international community to undertake greater conservation efforts, says UNEP-WCMC Director Mark Collins.

Human enthusiasm to protect special resource areas and sacred sites goes back more than 2,000 years, says Stuart Chape, lead author of the protected areas list. In 252 BC the Emperor Asoka of India set up protected areas for mammals, birds, fish and forests - the earliest recorded examples of government backed protection," Chape said.

"In some ways we are seeing history coming full circle, rediscovering our stewardship of the Earth and the need to manage and respect our natural resources in a way that was first understood thousands of years ago - and indeed has continued to be understood by many cultures around the world,” he said.

IUCN Director General Achim Steiner recognized the efforts of developing countries to conserve their irreplaceable natural resources. "Since the Earth Summit in Rio," he said, "developing country governments have demonstrated extraordinary commitment and over 40 percent of protected area sites are today found in developing countries.”

“Although many park managers are taking on additional responsibilities for the social and economic welfare of neighbouring communities, the equitable sharing of benefits and costs of protected areas remains a challenge. Strategies to address this challenge are at the core of many discussions here in Durban,” Steiner said.

Saudi Arabia

Meteorite impact site in the Empty Quarter (Ar-Rub' Al-Khali) desert of Saudi Arabia, the second largest protected area on Earth (Photo courtesy USGS)
The world’s protected areas now cover 11.5 percent of the Earth’s land surface, an area larger than India and China together and larger than the area of land under permanent, arable crops.

Between 10 and 30 percent of some of the planet’s vital natural features such as the Amazonian rainforests, the Arctic tundra and the tropical savannah grasslands are now held in these protected areas.

Europe leads the way in terms of the numbers of protected areas with over 43,000 listed.

North Eurasia is next with nearly 18,000 protected areas. North America has over 13,000, while Australia and New Zealand together have protected close to 9,000 areas.

There are nearly 4,390 protected areas in Eastern and Southern Africa, and a further 2,600 in Western and Central Africa.

The Pacific, with around 320 protected areas, has the fewest.

In terms of size, it is Central America and South America which have the largest protected areas estates, covering almost 25 percent of each of these regions. North America has protected just over 18 percent of the region’s land surface.

“The global environment movement and the United Nations can be justifiably proud of the growth in protected areas," said UNEP’s Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Since 1962, the year of the first World Parks Congress, the number of such sites has really mushroomed, rising from an area of some two million square kilometers to over 18 million square kilometers today.”

But, said Toepfer, this is no time for self-congratulation, and listing areas of land and sea is not an end in itself. "We need to continue the good work on the land and tackle the big gaps at sea," he said.

There are other big gaps in protection revealed by the comprehensive listing. These are lake systems, with just over 1.5 percent protected; temperate grasslands, with just over 4.5 percent protected; and cold winter deserts, with under eight percent now designated for protection.

Protected areas cannot be "the privilege of the rich and the well heeled," Toepfer said. "The genetic and natural resources they hold, the ecosystem services they provide and their income generating potential from activities like sustainable tourism, can, if properly focused, be vital instruments in fighting poverty, in helping to deliver the World Summit on Sustainable Development’s Plan of Implementation."

Earth's 10 Largest Protected Areas

  1. Greenland - 97.2 million hectares

  2. Ar-Rub’al-Khali wildlife management area in Saudi Arabia - 64 million hectares

  3. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia - 34.5 million hectares

  4. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands' Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve of the United States - over 34 million hectares

  5. Amazonia forest reserve in Colombia - more than 32 million hectares

  6. Qiang Tang nature reserve in China - almost 25 million hectares

  7. Cape Churchill wildlife management area in northern Canada - just under 14 million hectares

  8. Northern Wildlife Management Zone in Saudi Arabia - 10 million hectares

  9. Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare biosphere reserve in Venezuela and Bolivia - over eight million hectares

  10. Vale do Javari indigenous area in Brazil - just over eight million hectares.