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In late March, the Government of the Seychelles announced that it will extend the protection of its seas to 400 000 sq km, an area twice the size of Great Britain, fulfilling its promise to protect 30% of its surrounding marine territory and biodiversity. What does this mean for the future of the archipelago’s marine biodiversity?

The Seychelles, an 115-island archipelago off the eastern coast of Africa, is bursting with marine biodiversity and endangered endemic species that it endeavours to protect. Home to the vulnerable Dugong, a saltwater cousin of the manatee, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, and over 320 different species of coral, the Seychelles are teeming with marine life, making its protection all the more important.

Seychelles’s Marine Protected Area

The new Marine Protection Area (MPA) is part of a debt-for-nature initiative facilitated by the US-based NGO, The Nature Conservancy. Financial sponsors allowed the island nation to restructure its US$21.6 million international debt into funding for an MPA expansion plan.

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With over one third of the local economy tied to fishing and marine tourism, the 30% conservation commitment reconciles economic sustainability with a two-zone Marine Spatial Plan. Marine spatial planning is a collaborative process by which multiple organisations and industries coordinate to establish sustainable practices and resource management plans. Zone one is a 200 000 sq km ‘High Biodiversity Protection Area.’ It expands upon the already-protected Aldabra islands’ UNESCO World Heritage site which includes the world’s second largest raised coral atoll. This zone sees the strongest restrictions on human activity as a ‘no-take zone’, limiting access to only non-extractive tourist uses, and banning fishing, mining and drilling. Zone two is a 217 000 sq km square ‘Medium Biodiversity Protection and Sustainable Use Area.’ According to The Nature Conservancy, this zone is ‘designed to conserve natural ecosystems and support sustainable economic activities, including catch and release fishing, tourism charters, and renewable energy’.

The Seychelles are home to numerous protected marine ecosystems. From coral reefs to sea grasses and mangrove lagoons, these environments host thousands of species, many of which are either vulnerable, threatened or critically endangered. Sea grasses for instance, serve as a widely-used nursery habitat, food for sea turtles and dugongs, help to stabilise sediments, and reduce seawater acidity.  By allowing these ecosystems the ability to grow and flourish, they can be rehabilitated and repair human-induced damage, while having their biodiversity and habitat preserved.  

Environmental stewardship has been a fundamental part of the Seychelles’ mission since its inception. As article 38 in the Seychelles Constitution states: “The State recognises the right of every person to live in and enjoy a clean, healthy and ecologically balanced environment and with a view to ensuring the effective realisation of this right, the State undertakes to ensure sustainable socio-economic development of Seychelles by a judicious use and management of the resources of Seychelles.” 

It is the ultimate hope that the Seychelles can serve as a model for other island nations struggling to balance a “Blue-Economy” within a changing ocean. By showing its commitment to preserving its oceans while ensuring stable economic growth, the Seychelles can show other nations that rely on ocean tourism that this decoupling is possible. 

While the UN has set a goal for 10% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2020, only about 2- 5.7% of the world’s oceans are currently protected areas.

Featured image by: Klaus Stiefel

Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve marks a year without losing a single elephant to ivory poaching.

Elephant Poaching Statistics 

Half a decade ago, with rising demand for ivory in the world market, poachers ran amok in Niassa Reserve killing thousands of elephants. In 2009, over 15,000 elephants had roamed free in the reserve that spans over 42,000 sq km–an area larger than Taiwan–in a remote part of northern Mozambique. But 70% of them were killed by 2015 as the rampant poaching went unchecked.

Life for the remaining 4500 elephants continued to be dotted by serious threats despite the national government introducing new anti poaching measures. 200 more elephants were killed in the following two years.

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But a new collaborative approach taken by the government and conservationists brought the poaching death toll down to zero in the last 12 months.

How to stop elephant poaching?

The Mozambique government teamed up with two conservation groups–the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Niassa Conservation Alliance–to implement a well-coordinated anti-poaching strategy last year. The plan included aerial surveillance and deployment of a newly formed rapid-intervention police force capable of being quickly dispatched to remote poaching locations in the wilderness, in areas where poachers previously roamed unhindered by the law.

Year-round air surveillance relied on a Cessna aircraft and a helicopter. Air patrols were further strengthened during the wet summer season–a period running from December 2018 to May 2019–when the elephants were most vulnerable to poaching.

Unlike the reserve’s normal rangers, the new rapid-intervention police force was better armed and was empowered to arrest suspected poachers. The force’s ability to immediately arrest the poachers made a real impact. They processed each case within 72 hours and submitted it to the local prosecutor. Meanwhile, the government fast-tracked the cases in the court and prosecuted a number of suspects under the revised conservation law.

The government also invested more in improving Niassa’s radio communication system leading to better coordination between surveillance and enforcement teams. Besides stopping every single poacher from entering into the nature reserve, the police also cleared a number of illegal mining and fishing camps within the boundary.

Anti-poaching measures by various African nations together with an ivory trade ban by countries including China, have significantly reduced the threats African elephants face. A recent study finds that African elephant poaching rates have dropped by 60% in the last six years. The annual poaching mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 10% in 2011 to less than 4% in 2017. Yet the rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate. Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from an estimated few million around 1900 to a little more than 400,000, according to a survey. The recovery of elephant populations will require as much as 90 years even if poaching were to be completely eradicated from Africa tomorrow. Gaps in policy and enforcement, coupled with corruption, and sluggishness on behalf of most local governments are still major challenges that hinder conservation efforts of elephants in the continent. 

 

The greatest conservation success story in the 21st century is the exponential growth of protected areas–a primary defence mechanism against Earth’s biodiversity loss. In 1992, world nations signed an agreement to create protected areas on land and sea to preserve nature and prevent biodiversity loss.  The numbers say we did it. 15% of the Earth’s surface is now marked as protected. But did we really do it? Do numbers alone speak the truth?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) definition of a protected area is ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’.

What are Protected Areas and Why are They Important?

These protected areas play a key role in preserving the benefits that nature brings to people. These benefits, often referred to as ‘ecosystem services,’ include the provision of food and freshwater, the regulation of floods and droughts, nutrient cycling, and recreational opportunities.

The idea of protecting nature was originally conceived in the late 19th century to preserve vast stretches of wilderness in their unspoiled, untouched form. The goal was simple: to keep nature safe from people. While this remains true today, new objectives were added over time, as protected wildlife zones often became tourist attractions and important economic pillars starting from the 1970s- a period which saw the expansion of protected areas across the world.

Since signing the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993, the 168 member states have almost doubled the size of their protected areas in efforts to meet that treaty’s goal: that each nation protects at least 17% of its land area and 10% of its oceans by 2020. As of today, world nations have legally designated over 202 000 protected lands covering 19.8 million square kilometers, or 15% of Earth’s surface.

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protected lands
The protected areas of the world. This map shows protected area coverage (in percentage) of the world’s terrestrial (green gradient) and marine (blue gradient) ecoregions of the world. Source: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN, 2018a.

Asia

There are over 10 900 protected areas in Asia that cover 13.9% of the terrestrial environment and 1.8% of the marine and coastal areas. Protected area coverage beyond 12 nautical miles remains critically low; only 0.04% of the marine and coastal areas between 12 and 200 nautical miles in Asia are under protected area management. This is particularly significant as marine biodiversity is most pronounced in shallow waters. Coastal and marine protection per country is very low with no countries covering at least 10% of their marine area within national jurisdiction (0-200 nautical miles). Only four countries, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan and Thailand, have more than 5% of their territorial seas covered by protected areas.

Some countries like Bhutan and Brunei Darussalam have around 40% of their land protected while other 14 countries in Asia have less than 17% of their land covered by protected areas. China makes significant contributions to the region’s protected area coverage. In North West China, there are four vast protected areas that cover around 766 000 square km. If these areas were excluded, the total territorial coverage in Asia would drop from 13.9 to 10.2%.

The State of Protected Areas

The rich biodiversity found within Asia’s protected areas is under constant and immense threat. Asia’s high population density- 1.5 times the global average- is one of the major factors fuelling the degradation of these lands.  

IUCN points out three major categories of threats faced by protected areas: biological resource use, natural system modifications, and agricultural and aquaculture expansion. Biological resource use– the most frequently reported threat–refers to hunting, illicit wildlife trade, and logging inside the designated areas. IUCN suggests a total prevention of use of biological resources in the areas. Natural system modifications refer to management interventions like controlled burn and construction of dams that can cause habitat loss, degrading protected areas. While agricultural expansion leads to deforestation and aquaculture causes erosion of biodiversity within the protected areas.

In South East Asia, ‘biological resource use’ is growing with the rising demand for exotic and wildlife products like rhino horn, pangolins, bear bile, reptiles, turtles, orchids, corals and sharks. Illicit wildlife trade from Asia said to be worth in excess of $23 billion a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Focusing on hydropower for their energy needs countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam are building a number of dams in the Mekong River that flows through their territories. These ‘natural system modification’ projects will likely sound the death knell for many of the region’s protected species. A study by the Mekong River Commission released last year showed that Mekong fish stocks could fall by up to 40 percent as a result of the dam projects.

protected lands
Expansion of palm oil fields degraded the existing protected areas in Indonesia

Agricultural expansion, especially for timber, rubber, and palm oil, has been a major driver of forest loss in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, 16% of the total primary forest–6.02 million hectares under protected areas– was lost during 2000-2012.  Meanwhile, large swathes of land within protected areas have been allocated for rubber and palm oil plantations by the governments in Cambodia and Laos.

Failure of governments to implement effective conservation policies and curbing corruption has let down the management of protected areas in the region. For instance, in Indonesia–a country with an abysmal transparency score and weak enforcement institutions–forestry remains one of the most graft-prone industries. This is partly rooted in the continuing decentralisation of power to local governments since 1998.  The result was an unprecedented increase in the sale of public land from local government to private actors for palm oil plantations and timber logging. Many of these transactions allegedly involved payment to local government officials, and resulted in dozens of major corruption cases like Agung Podomoro land case.

Globally, one-third of all protected areas are under intense human pressure.  Over six million square km of protected land face pressure from agriculture, encroaching human settlement, roads, light pollution, rail, and infrastructure development on waterways, recent studies have found. Only 10% of lands were completely free of human activity, but most of these regions are in remote areas of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada. Wealthy and poor nations alike are failing to adequately enforce their protected areas.

Do Protected Areas Really Work?

Legal designation is hence a necessary but alone insufficient instrument for biodiversity protection. Devoid of enforcement and policing mechanisms, as well as of responsive and transparent institutions, protection remains more of an aspiration than a fact.

Protected areas’ effectiveness for biodiversity conservation is now questioned by many.  A study shows that not all protected areas are up to the standard set by the IUCN.  Many governments allow a number of destructive, unsustainable activities within the boundaries of these areas. Over 60% of areas are simply too small—less than one square kilometer—to save big or migrating species. Most protected areas are not well-connected in order to allow movement of animal and plant populations, especially in the face of worsening climate change.  While they help buffer species from habitat loss and overexploitation, protected areas do little to save species from other threats like climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

Governments have left most protected areas with too little money for management. Globally protected areas are underfunded to the tune of $18 billion a year: three times as much as is currently spent on managing protected areas ($6 billion). The poor management of these areas opens the door to any number of human impacts including poaching, illegal logging, habitat destruction, illegal fishing, etc.

protected lands
A successful conservation model: Corcovado National Park, 726,000 acres, Lakes Region, Chile

Solving the Crisis

The future is grim. The human population is likely to touch nine billion by 2035 causing an increased demand for resources that will take an unprecedented toll on protected areas at current per-capita consumption rates.

Policy-makers should stipulate a set of science-based, site-specific nature retention targets aimed at keeping natural systems intact and functioning. Governments should focus on outcomes that are positive for biodiversity, rather than increasing the number of areas. They should also follow the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA)’s framework guide to assess effectiveness of the areas.  

A well conserved protected area is a result of collaboration among law enforcement departments, policy-makers, local communities, and other stakeholders.  Objectives of managing protected areas, besides the primary one of biodiversity conservation, now also include social and economic ones. Reconciling the objectives with the needs of local livelihoods will require building partnerships and alliances with local businesses and communities. The Chilean Patagonia model, one of the successful collaborative conservation efforts in recent times, is a great example of such a partnership.

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