Protected areas are one of the most effective tools available for conserving biodiversity. As defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 1994, a protected area is an ‘area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means’. Today, protected habitats often contain the only remaining populations of a particular type and species. For the Assam’s roofed turtle (Pangshura sylhetensis), found in parts of eastern Bangladesh and the north east of India, avoiding extinction is entirely dependent upon the continued protection of its habitat.
Setting aside area for the preservation of the natural environment is not a recent phenomenon. Historical examples include the sacred groves of Asia and Africa and the indirect protection of biodiversity afforded by royal hunting grounds. The establishment of protected area is now however, a legislative component of most national and regional agendas to counter biodiversity loss. Starting in the later part of the 20th century, new forms of management and different approaches to governance emerged. Conserving the diversity of nature continued to be a primary consideration. Today, the responsibilities for governing these areas are increasingly being shared with protected areas being home to indigenous people who depend on the health and viability of the region for their very survival, and who in turn through their continued practices assure the ongoing protection of native plants and animals.
Science tells us that protected areas are good for protecting nature. Yet, it is not science alone that drives the establishment of protected area. Emotions are part of the equation too: people feel strongly about the beauty of a landscape or the possible loss of charismatic species such as the Grizzly bear or the Bengal tiger. Creating a global, ecologically representative reserve system that is well-managed will require substantial financial investment. Thus, there is a need to prioritise the allocation of scarce conservation resources towards the expansion of existing protected areas so that returns from biodiversity conservation are maximised. Additionally, climate change poses an unprecedented threat with a range of extremely serious and hard to predict consequences.
Protected Areas and Climate Change
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and other forms of land use change. Protected areas secure and prevent the loss of carbon through luxuriant vegetative growth and rich soil profiles; providing the most effective management strategy to avoid conversion to other land uses.
Protection of ecosystems usually secures their sequestration potential too, when climate change continue to undermine carbon capture, even inside protected areas. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Synthesis Report 2005, estimated that 60 per cent of global ecosystem services are degraded, which ‘contribute to a significant rise in the number of floods and major wild fires on all continents since the 1940s’ The integrity of ecosystems, communities and species, and of the processes that confer resilience in ecosystems, is an essential factor in protecting against increasingly variable climatic extremes.
According to a report titled Effects of climate change on protected areas 2003, WWF, Germany, such regions offer limited defence against problems posed by rapid environmental change and that protected areas will themselves need to be changed if they are to meet the challenges posed by global warming. The Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is a vast area of seasonal salt lakes supporting huge populations of flamingos and is the only remaining habitat for 2000 Indian wild asses (Equus hemionus khur).The area is likely to become inundated by the sea, destroying the habitat and threatening the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary and the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary. Also, investment in restoring ecosystem within and adjacent to protected area will also be necessary to enhance ecosystem services that serve to reduce the vulnerability of human societies.