Protected areas: a hope in the midst of the sixth mass extinction

With the world entering the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, it is time for IUCN and the global conservation community it represents to prioritise the right conservation actions. National parks and other protected areas should be central to our efforts, but with poorer countries unable to pay to protect them it is essential we find effective solutions involving both private and public lands – writes distinguished Kenyan conservationist and IUCN Patron of Nature Richard Leakey.

Zebras and wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

In the current circumstances on our planet, I find it difficult to offer a set of priorities on what we need to do. In every way, I believe that the impact of climate change is likely to be fundamental to the world we know. Our universal expectations of a better tomorrow based on economic growth are probably delusional for the majority of the human species, and I dare say for almost all terrestrial and aquatic forms of life. This scenario is certainly not a new one for planet earth, but it is completely new to humans who have neither seen, nor experienced climate-driven mass extinctions. 

The sixth mass extinction and the human species

To add to our extraordinary position, we are now aware of previous mass extinctions – we have and continue to document the planet's geologic history where there is clear evidence of climate change and its consequences. We seem to be paralysed by these stark messages, and totally unwilling in a general sense to relate to the fact that there is now a sixth major extinction phenomenon underway. The idea that we may be a significant causal factor is gradually being accepted but it is slow, and the very notion that our own species is very much a candidate for extinction, along with the majority of other species great and small, is largely an unacceptable concept. 

Do we have plans to follow as sea level rise accelerates with ice cap melt, and the sea ports and coastal cities everywhere have to be relocated? Do we have the means to relocate? This is not a question for the unborn and unknown generations of humans because it is likely to affect those who are now young. My grandchildren will have children who may well find there is no Boston, Miami, Mombasa, Sydney or the thousands of other seaside cities. These cities seem likely to be under water from sea level rise that could be up to 30 metres over the next one hundred not one thousand years! So, how then do we, the Patrons of Nature, offer advice on protecting nature everywhere on our little planet?

Sea level rises threaten coastal cities such as Mombasa, Kenya.

Sea level rises threaten coastal cities such as Mombasa, Kenya.

Photo: Sarah0S CC2.0


Whilst I welcome community conservation efforts, I am forced to question whether these efforts can succeed in the longer time frame of even 50 years.

I am increasingly convinced that in the tropics, and particularly in the poorer nations, protecting nature everywhere is an effort with diminishing returns. I believe that protected areas (that is areas of land set aside by governments and governed by national statutes) such as national parks and national forests are the best targets if nature is to be protected. 

Community conservancies or national parks? 

Whilst I understand and welcome the new fad of community conservation efforts and wildlife conservancies, I am forced to question whether these efforts can succeed in the longer time frame of even 50 years. Private rather than public funds should be the backbone of any non­governmental enterprise, and in poor countries, private wealth and not-for-profit investments are challenging to sustain.

Whilst state-owned wildlife land, designated as national parks, is vital, in some countries private land may also be secured by state laws that allow for private ownership of title. Thus an individual can use such land for wildlife and nature protection for the duration of the term of the title and this can be equally as secure as a national park.

Not all countries have constitutional provision for private ownership of land, and instead occupancy and land use are regulated by lease hold. In respect to conservation, this is certainly a better option than group-owned or community-owned land where in time wildlife could be untenable given governance arrangements on community-owned assets.

A giraffe in a private wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya.

A giraffe in a private wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. 

Photo: Scott Bjelland

In Kenya, where I have some experience, there currently exists a growing potential for conflict. Group-owned conservancies want a ready cash income from their asset, and nature tourism is an obvious low-hanging fruit. As "owner families" realise cash for better homes, school expenses and health, the expectations are that the money from conservation fees, bed nights in lodges, etc., will grow too. Too many tourists and the overcrowding of facilities becomes a problem, as does raising prices, and in time, the use of the land for "conservation" is no longer the "golden egg" it started out as. More children need more fees, better schooling costs more money, and so it goes with the cash needs rapidly exceeding realistic revenues in the longer term.

This may play out over 30 years but probably not much more. So what happened to our original goal of protecting nature on community land conservancies?

National parks and national forests are surely where our greatest effort must be concentrated

On private land individually owned by title, the cost/benefit situation can be more readily analysed, and an element of long-term nature protection is possible and can provide some species with reasonable survival prospects. It is not, however, a realistic global strategy.

Let me return then to national parks and national forests. These are surely where our greatest effort must be concentrated. I would urge that we consider how a new initiative can be driven to better secure these protected areas. Leaving this challenge to individual governments to deal with is unrealistic given poverty and the terrible imbalance between people's needs and nature's needs.

A farmer and his livestock on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

A farmer and his livestock on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Photo: Pixabay

Perhaps it is time for the Patrons of Nature to put forward once again the idea that the world cannot afford to lose protected areas. At the same time we should accept that the poorer economies cannot afford the measures to protect them. Saving endangered species is a short term public relations and fundraising exercise which, whilst doing good, is not addressing the bigger questions.

Nobody can expect to protect nature everywhere for all time and it is time to prioritise our efforts. The broad range of conservation initiatives need to be ranked and prioritised by scientific assessment of the crisis we face. Climate change means all change and when humanity starts to see seaside cities going under the sea with their economies, nature will have a very muted voice if one at all.

I do believe that IUCN and we, its Patrons of Nature, can rise to the challenge, but in truth, I fear I also have to ask the last question –"Can we?"

Climate change
Protected areas

Dr Richard Leakey is a prominent Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He is known for extensive fossil finds related to human evolution and for his efforts to preserve the wildlife of the African continent. He is currently Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, and Founder and Chair of the Turkana Basin Institute, a Kenya-based research facility focused on palaeontology, archaeology and geology. Dr Leakey is also an IUCN Patron of Nature.  


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