Johannesburg — Slow rate at which the marine world is being protected is cause for concern
CRUCIAL progress is being made towards conserving the world's most spectacular habitats and wildlife, with 11,5% of the earth's land surface already under protection.
But a lack of funds could prove to be a major hurdle to ensuring the sustainability of these areas in many countries.
The world's protected areas now encompass more than the land surface of India and China combined. They are also larger than the land under permanent, arable crops across the globe.
Yet, protected areas in most countries urgently need technical and financial resources to ensure that they are effectively managed to achieve their objectives and targets.
These are some of the findings of the 2003 United Nations List of Protected Areas report, the most comprehensive study of the world's known protected areas, released at the Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The report lists world heritage sites, biosphere reserves, national parks and other protected areas, including, for the first time, thousands of sites smaller than 10km', many of which are in private hands.
The global conservation estate has grown enormously since the first UN list was published in 1962, with just over 1000 protected areas. Now 102102 sites covering an area of 18,8-million square kilometres are under protection worldwide, with more than 40% found in developing countries.
SA's conservation paradise, like the rest of the world, has seen exponential growth over the past 10 years, with about 6,6% of its total land surface and 17% of its coastline under formal protection. SA has 403 protected areas, and is putting in place regulations and initiatives to help expand this number by 2010.
These initiatives include a R85,8m project to save the Cape Agulhas plain, a unique plant kingdom boasting one of the world's largest repositories of lowland fynbos and renosterveld habitats.
The Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative, launched yesterday on the fringe of the congress, is part of an ambitious government plan to protect the Cape floristic region, while encouraging equitable access and sharing of benefits with local communities.
A model will be developed that will tie the management of a mosaic of protected areas on public and private lands with production systems on neighbouring farms, particularly sustainable wildflower-harvesting and nature-based tourism. Government intends to replicate this cost-effective and sustainable model in other biodiversity hotspots that need protection.
Between 10% and 30% of some of the planet's vital natural features, such as the Amazonian rainforests, the Arctic tundra and tropical savannah grasslands, are now held in protected areas.
However, progress in conserving other biologically and ecologically important landscapes is "proving more sluggish".
Less than 10% of the world's large lakes are protected, and temperate grasslands typical of central Asia and the north American prairies are similarly poorly protected.
The rate at which the planet's marine world is gaining protection is cause for greater concern. Less than 0,5% of the world's seas and oceans are within protected areas. This is despite the importance of fisheries and habitats, such as coral reefs, being sources of protein and employment for billions of people worldwide.
The UNEP findings suggest that a huge effort will be needed to achieve a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012, a key agreement made at last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development.
UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer says there are numerous challenges facing the Durban congress in tackling big gaps in sea conservation.
He suggests that countries extend the good management and local, national and regional benefits arising from protected areas to the wider world.
He explains: "Put simply, we cannot pat ourselves on the backs if we end up with islands of well- protected wildlife, habitats and ecosystems in a sea of environmental degradation."
Listing areas of land and sea cannot be an end in itself, nor can protected areas be a privilege of the rich and the well-heeled, he warns. "The genetic and natural resources they hold, the ecosystem services they provide and their income-generating potential from activities like sustainable tourism, can, if properly focused, be vital instruments in fighting poverty ... "
Achim Steiner, IUCN director- general, agrees that protected areas are a tool to ensure the sustainability of the world's common heritage.
"Although many park managers are taking on additional responsibilities for the social and economic welfare of neighbouring communities, the equitable sharing of benefits and costs of protected areas remains a challenge," Steiner says.
Strategies to address this challenge are at the core of many discussions in Durban.
A draft 2003 State of the World's Protected Areas, under discussion at the congress, is expected to mobilise the international community to manage protected areas in a way that benefits people and wildlife.
The final report will be published next year in Malaysia at the Seventh Committee of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.