- According to a new UN list of all protected areas in the world, presented at a Durban conference today, more than one tenth of Africa's land surface is managed for nature conservation, and the number of natural parks is steadily increasing. Eastern and Southern Africa are the regional conservation champions, although lagging far behind Latin America.
During the World Parks Congress, currently organised in South Africa's city of Durban, the UN environmental agency UNEP and the conservation organisation IUCN, today presented their new UN List of Protected Areas. For conservationists, the list is positive reading: More than 100,000 sites worldwide are now protected, contrasting just over 1,000 sited as the list was first presented in 1962.
The 2003 UN List contains 102,102 protected areas covering more than 18.8 million km2. If marine protected areas are excluded from these calculations the terrestrial extent of protected areas is some 17.1 million km2 - or 11.5 percent of the world's land surface. This is almost the same area as the entire continent of South America.
The African continent hits average numbers when it comes to protecting its natural environment. In Eastern and Southern Africa, 14.6 percent of the region's total land area is protected. This compares to 8.7 percent of Western and Central Africa and 9.7 percent of North Africa and the Middle East.
Other good news revealed in the UN List are that most of the world's main terrestrial biomes have reached the goal of having at least 10 percent of their occurrence area protected. The 10 percent target has now been reached or exceeded for nine of the 14 biomes, including all major African biomes.
Currently, at least 23.3 percent of the world's tropical humid forests biome is protected, although most of this is generated by vast protected areas in South America (where almost 25 percent of the territory is protected). Targets had also been met for the tropical dry forests/woodlands biome (12.8 percent protected), the tropical grasslands savannahs biome (15.3 percent), the warm deserts/semi-deserts biome (10.3 percent) and the mountain biome (16.3 percent).
Although the world had experienced significant progress in terms of protecting natural and semi-natural landscapes, several shortcomings were however noted. In particular the world's great lake systems - only 1.5 percent is protected - and the ocean biomes are still lacking adequate protection. Here, no major improvements were in sight.
The rate at which the planet's marine world is gaining protection causes even great concern, according to a joint statement by UNEP and IUCN. Less than 0.5 percent of the world's seas and oceans are within protected areas. This was "despite the importance of fisheries and habitats such as coral reefs as sources of protein and employment for billions of people across the developed and developing world."
Also, another threat was becoming visible to the global efforts to protect the great biomes. Global warming is currently seen to rapidly reshape the distribution of these biomes, as the mountain, arctic and coastal biomes are changing their character.
According to a new publication presented in Durban by the environmentalist group WWF, changing patterns of climate affect the natural distribution limits for species or communities, forcing them to migrate in response to changing conditions. "Around the world, changing conditions are resulting in the loss of rare species," WWF told delegates. "Coral reefs are under threat due to rising sea levels and to coral bleaching due to of warmer sea temperatures."
More than 2,500 dignitaries, government officials, indigenous leaders, businessmen and conservationists from over 170 countries are participating in the Durban World Parks Congress. Among the speakers was UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer, who also delivered a speech on behalf of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
- While protected areas have been multiplying, biological diversity has been declining at a rate unprecedented since the last great extinction 65 million years ago, Mr Annan's speech noted. Essential ecosystem functions are being undermined, perhaps irretrievably, as forests are felled, wetlands drained, and terrestrial and marine habitats degraded by pollution," he added.
Stuart Chape, the lead author of the UN List, further told the Durban congress delegates that they needed to enhance their conservation efforts. He reminded them that nature conservation was not a historically recent phenomenon. "Human enthusiasm to protect and conserve special resource areas and 'sacred' sites goes back millennia.
- 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, said Mr Chape. Now, over 12 percent of the world's terrestrial surface is protected.
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