Can National Parks benefit both people and wildlife?

National Parks, Nature Reserves and other protected areas have existed in some form since the 19th century and now cover some 13% of the global land area, but we don’t fully understand the impact on human populations of devoting such large areas of land to wildlife conservation. A systematic review of the evidence published today (28 October 2013 in Journal Environmental Evidence) suggests that there can be both positive and negative impacts when protected areas are established, but our understanding of how more win-win outcomes for both people and nature can be achieved is limited.

The study on the impact of terrestrial protected areas on local communities was commissioned by the Science and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and conducted by the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation, Bangor University and the EPPI-Centre, Institute of Education, University of London.

The report’s lead author, Andrew Pullin, said “We wanted to understand how win-win situations are created and why they are achieved in some places and not others. There is some evidence of benefit to local populations from the establishment of protected areas and so the challenge is to understand how these positive outcomes can be achieved over a much wider range of circumstances.”

A limited number of studies show greater economic and social development at the boundaries of protected areas than further away suggesting a benefit to local communities, such as from increased tourism or infrastructure. However this was not a strong effect or one which was clearly generalizable.

The review found that although there are many claims and counter claims about impacts on local communities, appropriately conducted objective studies are scarce. Past studies have been carried out in a piecemeal fashion with low resource inputs and no co-ordinated research strategy. Organisations concerned with both wildlife conservation and human welfare should take a step back and consider how best to collect the evidence required to ensure more win-win outcomes.

Establishment of the early protected areas often involved the forced eviction of local communities. Since its introduction by world leaders at the Rio Summit in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity has sought to establish more protected areas that benefit both wildlife and people at the global level but without the negative impacts on local human populations. However, there are still many claims that local communities are suffering negative impacts.

Exclusion from traditional lands within a park is a common complaint as expressed by one respondent of a study

“The reserve is like a beautiful woman whom you cannot touch. It does not do

you any good. The hills are rich, but a poor man stays poor”.

Local people often suffer directly from wildlife leaving the park and raiding their crops, damaging their homes and killing residents.

“We cannot live here with elephants. We plant our corn to feed the elephants and then we suffer”

“Whenever we report damage to our crops and the loss of our cattle to the people from the park nothing is done, but whenever we try to defend ourselves against the wild animals they are there within a minute to arrest us.”

Clearly conflicts still exist but people and wildlife don’t have to be competitors, they can and must both be winners. By combining people’s views and experimental data this systematic review sets a baseline of evidence and draws attention for the need to design high quality studies backed by the necessary resources to better inform future policy.

Publication date: 28 October 2013