Space for Nature: IUCN World Parks Congress 2014

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The once-in-a-decade IUCN World Parks Congress (WPC) took place in Sydney, Australia, from 12-19 November 2014. 

The 6th WPC, coming at a critical halfway point in the run up to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, agreed in Nagoya, Japan in 2010, aimed to report on progress, build new alliances and decide on a future vision and strategy for the world's protected areas and their role in sustainable development.  With more than 6,000 people attending from more than 160 countries (including governments, business, civil society and protected area managers), the congress was participatory, innovative and solutions-orientated and defined the agenda for protected areas for the decade to come.


ZSL's vision for protected areas

The Living Planet Report published by WWF and ZSL in September 2014 highlighted that we have lost 50% of the world’s wildlife in the past 40 years.  Protected areas are key to helping mitigate this crisis, yet current conservation efforts are not keeping pace with the threats facing our species and ecosystems.  A global public opinion survey conducted by ZSL and released at the WPC in 2014 highlighted that the public overwhelmingly support the establishment of protected areas for the conservation of wildlife, and feel that 50% of the world should be under protection.  The current government targets of 17% and 10% for terrestrial and marine protected area coverage respectively clearly fall short of both public ideals and scientific needs.  ZSL is working to create an ambitious vision for the future for protected areas, calling for an increase in protected area coverage, and leading efforts to gain consensus from the conservation and ultimately wider community as to what areas should be off-limits.  On the ground, ZSL’s widespread implementation of a standardised adaptive management system and upscaling of monitoring efforts is ensuring that protected area managers can respond more quickly to emerging threats.  ZSL is also working to develop innovative financial mechanisms to fund the scaling-up of this work, all with the aim of reversing declines and securing the future for wildlife populations.


Key ZSL focal areas and activities at WPC



ZSL focus

ZSL sessions at the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014

The WPC main programme was structured around 8 thematic streams and 4 cross-cutting streams.  ZSL was one of the lead organising institutions for Stream 1 – Reaching Conservation Goals and organised a number of key sessions under this stream, including sessions on ‘Wildlife crime and law enforcement in protected areas’, ‘Monitoring conservation outcomes inside and outside protected areas’ and ‘Beyond the Aichi Targets - Space for Nature’, which looked at the future of protected areas and served to close the stream 1 programme.  All this contributed to the WPC's Promise of Sydney.

Global public opinion survey on space for nature

Space for Nature infographic

ZSL, in collaboration with IUCN and freuds, carried out the first ever systematic global public opinion survey on the question of how much space we should set aside for nature, and why, to help steer the future vision for the world’s protected areas. 

See the survey results

An adult cheetah yawning, taken during the Institute of Zoology's ongoing Cheetah Conservation Program.ZSL, in collaboration with IUCN and freuds, has carried out the first ever systematic global public opinion survey on the question of how much space we should set aside for nature, and why, to help steer the future vision for the world’s protected areas. 

The need for a global public opinion survey

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’s Aichi Target 11, the governments of the world have pledged to protect at least 17% of the world’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of its coastal and marine areas by 2020.  However, this target has been largely agreed through a political process, and there has been little consultation with the public on what areas we should protect for nature, and why.  In November 2014, the conservation community met to decide on a vision for the world’s protected areas beyond 2020 at the once-in-a-decade IUCN World Parks Congress, and it was critical that the views of this global constituency were incorporated into this process.

Informing discussions at the IUCN World Parks Congress

ZSL coordinated a key session at the World Parks Congress which addressed this question.  The aim of the session was to explore, in an interactive and participatory fashion, three dimensions of the question, ‘What space should we protect for nature post-2020?’, with respect to:

  1. Public opinion – how much space do people think should be allocated to nature, and why?
  2. Scientific advice – how much nature do we need to protect, and where, in order to conserve the intrinsic and utilitarian values and benefits that nature provides and that people want?
  3. Political targets – what does this mean for informing the design and uptake of new targets for protected areas beyond 2020?

A key aspect of this session was to ask people around the world – for the first time – their opinion regarding the space we set aside for nature.

Watch the film on Space for Nature to find out more:


Survey sample

The online survey targeted a randomised, national-level cross-section of society (at least 1000 respondents) in each of 7 developed and developing countries representing all six inhabited continents (Australia, UK, USA, Brazil, China, India and South Africa) and was also disseminated via ZSL’s and partners’ networks through social media and other means in September/October 2014.

PDF icon Space for nature infographic (9.23 MB)

See the survey results


Canadian Space for Nature report

The University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) recently adapted the Space for Nature survey and administered it across Canada. The results in Canada are consistent with findings from other countries around the world that support much larger-scale protection of nature.

See the survey results



Results from the first-ever global survey released by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) show that people want significantly more protected natural space than currently exists.

A poll of more than 7,000 people from Australia, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, UK and USA shows people think that 50% of the planet’s land and oceans should be protected, when in reality a mere 3% of the world’s oceans and only 15% of land is currently under protection.

The Space for Nature poll was commissioned to understand the public’s perceptions and expectations of what percentage of land and sea is protected as conservationists, NGOs and governments from over 160 countries prepare to define the world’s needs from protected areas in the future at the once-in-a-decade IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.

Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation at ZSL, comments: “ZSL and WWF’s Living Planet Index has recently demonstrated that global wildlife populations have halved in 40 years.  If this trend is to be reversed we need to think about how much space we leave for other species and I believe that if we act now, setting aside 50% of the planet for protected areas is achievable. ZSL looks forward to working with 4,000 experts from across the globe at the upcoming IUCN World Parks Congress to clarify what can and must be done to improve the coverage and effectiveness of protected spaces.”


See a presentation of the full survey results here (1.06MB, opens in new tab)
ZSL at the World Parks Congress

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After eight days, the World Parks Congress (WPC) is over, but what has actually been achieved? What exactly was the outcome of bringing together more than 6,000 participants from over 170 countries?

Firstly, and probably most significantly, is the way that conferences such as this bring together the world’s conservationists, communities and governments under a common goal – to conserve our natural heritage. The opportunity to exchange knowledge, embrace new cultures and work together on common problems. This should not be underestimated, as the true impact of Sydney will be how these lessons are applied by delegates back in their own countries.

The congress also gives governments and politicians the stage on which to make big announcements. A number of significant announcements were made during the WPC: China committed to increase its protected areas territory by at least 20% and its forest area by 40 million hectares; Gabon will create a network of new marine protected areas equivalent to 23% of its marine waters; Russia pledged to create 27 new federal protected areas; and South Africa pledged to triple their ocean protection in the next 10 years.

World Parks Congress 2014
Inside the IUCN World Parks Congress

However, the congress is not just about big announcements from politicians. All the discussions, debates and pledges at the congress are consolidated into the Promise of Sydney which “sets out an ambitious agenda to safeguard the planet’s natural assets”.  One of the headline pledges within the promise is that it outlines “a pathway for achieving the global target to protect at least 17% of land and 10% of oceans by 2020”. Much debate was had over the eight days about this target. Is it ambitious enough? Are numerical targets even a good thing? Do we know what impact our current protected areas are having? Whilst a target for 2020 is within the promise, I personally feel that a massive opportunity has been missed and that we should be aiming much higher. Most scientists agree that at least 30% of our natural world needs to be protected to safeguard our natural world and some, such as ZSL’s Space for Nature report and the #NatureNeedsHalf campaign, even call for 50% of the world to be set aside. Others argue that we simply don’t have enough data to set a numerical target and that we should continue to set aside areas until we see a halt in the decline in our biodiversity and the services that the natural world provides us. It is clear that we need to go way beyond the 2020 target and, given that the next WPC isn’t until 2024, a vision for beyond 2020 should have been integral to the Sydney promise.

Protected areas should not only be measured on coverage but also on their effectiveness.  Currently only 24% of protected areas are well managed, with many lacking simple objectives against which to measure their impact. We should therefore not get carried away with the creation of new protected areas without consolidating the ones we have already created. Thankfully the congress showcased a number of new technologies and tools that protected area managers can use to achieve just that, including ZSL’s Instant Wild, SMART and Google’s underwater streetview. In addition, a new initiative presented at the congress, the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas, looks to incentivise managers to improve their protected areas. To get on the new list, protected areas must be well managed and effective. This gives an extra incentive to governments and conservationists to strive for excellence in protected area management. It is hoped that this initiative will help to prevent the creation of “paper parks” - protected areas created on paper but without the necessary planning, enforcement and management to make them effective.  The conference saw 23 sites across the world awarded Green List status and let’s hope many more join that list soon!

As someone who works predominantly in the oceans, I was pleased to see the Promise of Sydney also call for “an urgent increase in ocean protection, including areas beyond national jurisdiction”. Our seas are being overexploited and need immediate action. The current predicament was summed up by Kristian Teleki, Global Ocean Commission, who stated that “If we ran our businesses like we manage our oceans, we would all be bankrupt”. Only 2-3% of our oceans are currently classified as protected and nearly all of these are coastal areas. The reason for this is that protected areas are designated by national and regional governments but their powers only extend out to 200 nautical miles, an area known as their Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. So not only are we woefully short of our 10% target, but we currently have no means to protect the area beyond our EEZs known as the high seas. Given that they cover ~50% of our planet, it is great to see the congress make a commitment to addressing this gap and work towards multilateral international agreements.

Ghost crab on Chagos beach
Ghost crab on Chagos beach. The Chagos Archipelago is the largest no-take marine protected area.

It is important to note that protected areas, although crucial, are only part of the solution and that on their own they cannot reverse the current biodiversity crisis we are experiencing. We should not allow the designation of protected areas to distract us from ensuring the rest of the world’s resources are being sustainably managed.  We still need to address the threats of climate change, overexploitation of natural resources and the illegal wildlife trade to name but a few.

I have only highlighted a few of the outcomes of the Promise of Sydney and the WPC but you can view all of them yourself here:

World Parks Congress outcomes

Most of the WPC delegates are now making their way home from Sydney, but I have decided to head north and explore the rainforests and coral reefs of Queensland. Fingers-crossed I will get to see some of the local residents: saltwater crocodiles, sharks, platypuses and cassowaries are top of my list.

My next blog will be in January when I return to the Indian Ocean to continue my research on the sharks and manta rays of the Chagos Archipelago. Follow me on Twitter at @d_curnick for regular updates.


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