Large Percentage of Protected Areas Severely Impacted by Human Activity

Logging roads cut into the Brazilian Amazon.

Logging roads cut into the Brazilian Amazon. NASA

One-third of the world’s protected land is being degraded by “intensive human activity,” such as logging, agriculture, mining, and urbanization, according to a new study published in the journal Science. That is equal to 2.3 million square miles of parks, preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries — an area nearly twice the size of India.

The scientists tracked this pressure on protected land using a map of the “human footprint” that tracked the location and extent of human activity on Earth, charting the world’s protected areas to see where they overlapped. They found that while the amount of land with protected status has increased from 9 percent to 15 percent since 1992, just 42 percent was free of any measurable human pressure. In almost three-quarters of the world’s nations, more than half of their protected land is under intense human pressure.

“What we have shown is that 6 million square kilometers [2.3 million square miles] have this level of human influence that is harmful to the species they are trying to protect,” the study’s senior author, James Watson from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the BBC’s Science in Action program. “It is not passive, it’s not agnostic; it is harmful and that is quite shocking. What was scary was that the patterns were consistent everywhere. No nation was behaving very well. All nations were allowing heavy industry inside their protected areas, including very rich nations.”