Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Do Our Reserves Protect Endangered Species?

By David Salt

A new analysis has found that our National Reserve System is not much better than a completely random placement of reserves when it comes to protecting our endangered species.

Australia’s National Reserve System (NRS) is up there among the world’s best in terms of size, but a new study out of the University of Queensland has revealed it’s not doing much in achieving one of its primary goals – the protection of our threatened species.

The study, recently published in Conservation Biology, examined the level of protection that the NRS afforded Australia’s threatened species. It examined the distributions of 1320 nationally listed species in Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and assessed how well the nation’s 9000-plus reserves (covering 11.6% of Australia) protects these species.

“While a few species have a large level of protection, over 80% of the species we analysed were inadequately protected,” says Dr James Watson, the lead author of the report. “One hundred-and-sixty-six species exist completely outside the protected area network. That’s 12% of our threatened species getting no protection from the NRS at all!

“The outcome is even worse for our most endangered species. We found that one-fifth of species considered critically endangered have no formal protection, an incredible finding considering these are the species most vulnerable to extinction.

“Indeed, our analysis shows that the current placement of the protected area network is not much better than a completely random placement of reserves, which is a poor outcome.”

So how has this come about? Is it simply poor design? Actually, it’s a mix of history, the difficult nature of protecting endangered animals through land acquisition, and never having closely examined how well our reserves are serving endangered animals.

Nature reserves were historically established on parcels of land that weren’t valuable for other uses. It was more about not locking up economically or agriculturally valuable land than maximising natural values. However, faced with an appalling record of protecting our biodiversity, the Australian government has actively sought to increase the size of the terrestrial protected area network (the NRS) to reverse trends of species decline and extinction.

Since 1995 the Australian government has applied systematic planning criteria to guide the expansion of the NRS. Since implementation of this framework began in 2000, the NRS has increased in size from 65 to 89 million hectares, and its practice of selection is regarded as a benchmark of international best practice.

Despite the substantial growth of Australia’s protected area system, however, little was known of the extent to which this network protected highly threatened species – which was the impetus for the study in Conservation Biology. Watson and colleagues assessed how the spatial coverage of the NRS protected threatened species with different geographical range sizes. They then compared Australia’s existing NRS to a hypothetical NRS that was drawn up randomly. They also “designed” a third “optimal” reserve network using conversation planning software.

We’ve already mentioned the bad news – that our existing NRS offers little more protection than a randomly created set of reserves in terms of protecting protected species. However, the investigation also revealed some positive findings.

“We looked at how much additional land needs to be placed in the protected area estate to overcome its current shortcomings,” says Dr Richard Fuller, a research fellow at the University of Queensland and co-author on the paper. “The good news is that if the protected area estate is planned efficiently from now on, we would only need to place 17.8% of Australia, around 6% more than is currently in the NRS”.

The investigators also demonstrated that if our protected area system had been formulated in the beginning with an explicit objective of protecting threatened species then we could have achieved it with much the same area as currently lies in the NRS.

“If we were to completely ignore the current reserve system’s contribution to biodiversity conservation and assume all land in Australia was available for acquisition, we found that approximately 11.9% of Australia’s land area would be required to be placed in a protected area for the adequate protection of all threatened species,” says Fuller.

The investigators stressed that while land acquisition for the enlargement of the NRS was an important strategy for protecting endangered species, it wasn’t the only action governments needed to invest in. Indeed, the costs and the benefits of different actions needed to be weighed up in order that the limited resources available were invested for the best biodiversity outcome.

David Salt is Knowledge Broker for the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis centre at the Australian National University.