The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies protected areas into six categories, ranging from strict nature reserves to areas where multiple human uses are permitted. In the past, many researchers have questioned the effectiveness of multiple-use areas, fueling an unresolved debate regarding their conservation value. The literature so far has been inconclusive: although several studies have found that strictly protected areas are more effective, others have found the opposite, and yet others that the two types do not differ. To help resolve this debate, we reviewed the literature on protected areas and conducted our own analysis using > 19 000 terrestrial protected areas worldwide. We found that the differences between strictly protected areas and areas in which multiple human uses are permitted are often small and not statistically significant. Although the effectiveness of protected areas worldwide varies, other factors, besides their assigned IUCN category, are likely to be driving this pattern.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Agrawal, A. 2014. Matching and mechanisms in protected area and poverty alleviation research. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111: 3909–3910. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1401327111.
Amatulli, G., S. Domisch, M.N. Tuanmu, B. Parmentier, A. Ranipeta, J. Malczyk, and W. Jetz. 2018. Data descriptor: A suite of global, cross-scale topographic variables for environmental and biodiversity modeling. Scientific Data 5: 180040. https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2018.40.
Anderson, E., and C. Mammides. 2020. Changes in land-cover within high nature value farmlands inside and outside Natura 2000 sites in Europe: A preliminary assessment. Ambio. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-020-01330-y.
Anderson, E., and C. Mammides. 2020. The role of protected areas in mitigating human impact in the world’s last wilderness areas. Ambio 49: 434–441. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01213-x.
Bebber, D.P., and N. Butt. 2017. Tropical protected areas reduced deforestation carbon emissions by one third from 2000–2012. Scientific Reports 7: 14005. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-14467-w.
Berghöfer, A. 2010. Protected areas: The weakness of calls for strict protection. Gaia 19: 9–12. https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.19.1.3.
Bishop, K., N. Dudley, A. Phillips, and S. Stolton. 2004. Speaking a common language: Uses and performance of the IUCN System of Management Categories for Protected Areas. Cardiff: IUCN.
Blackman, A., A. Pfaff, and J. Robalino. 2015. Paper park performance: Mexico’s natural protected areas in the 1990s. Global Environmental Change 31: 50–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.12.004.
Boitani, L., R.M. Cowling, H.T. Dublin, G.M. Mace, J. Parrish, H.P. Possingham, R.L. Pressey, C. Rondinini, et al. 2008. Change the IUCN protected area categories to reflect biodiversity outcomes. PLoS Biology 6: 0436–0438. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060066.
Burgette, L., B. Griffin, and D. McCaffrey. 2017. Propensity scores for repeated treatments: A tutorial for the iptw Function in the TWANG package. RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/tl136.2.
Butsic, V., C. Munteanu, P. Griffiths, J. Knorn, V.C. Radeloff, J. Lieskovský, D. Mueller, and T. Kuemmerle. 2017. The effect of protected areas on forest disturbance in the Carpathian Mountains 1985–2010. Conservation Biology 31: 570–580. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12835.
Carranza, T., A. Balmford, V. Kapos, and A. Manica. 2014. Protected area effectiveness in reducing conversion in a rapidly vanishing ecosystem: The Brazilian Cerrado. Conservation Letters 7: 216–223. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12049.
Chandra, A., and A. Idrisova. 2011. Convention on Biological Diversity: A review of national challenges and opportunities for implementation. Biodiversity and Conservation 20: 3295–3316.
Coad, L., J.E.M. Watson, J. Geldmann, N.D. Burgess, F. Leverington, M. Hockings, K. Knights, and M. Di Marco. 2019. Widespread shortfalls in protected area resourcing undermine efforts to conserve biodiversity. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17: 259–264. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2042.
Coetzee, B.W.T., K.J. Gaston, and S.L. Chown. 2014. Local scale comparisons of biodiversity as a test for global protected area ecological performance: A meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 9: e105824. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105824.
Di Marco, M., O. Venter, H.P. Possingham, and J.E.M. Watson. 2018. Changes in human footprint drive changes in species extinction risk. Nature Communications 9: 4621. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07049-5.
Dudley, N. 2008. Guidelines for applying protected area management categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, Internation Union for Conservation of Nature.
Dudley, N., and S. Stolton. 2008. Defining protected areas: An international conference in Almeria, Spain Mayo 2007. IUCN Protected Areas Categories Summit. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Dudley, N., J.D. Parrish, K.H. Redford, and S. Stolton. 2010. The revised IUCN protected area management categories: The debate and ways forward. Oryx 44: 485–490. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605310000566.
Dudley, N., C. Groves, K.H. Redford, and S. Stolton. 2014. Where now for protected areas? Setting the stage for the 2014 World Parks Congress. Oryx 48: 496–503. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605314000519.
Dushoff, J., M.P. Kain, and B.M. Bolker. 2019. I can see clearly now: Reinterpreting statistical significance. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 10: 756–759. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13159.
European Commission. 2016. Natura 2000 Barometer. Nature and Biodiversity Newsletter 40: 8–9.
Françoso, R.D., R. Brandão, C.C. Nogueira, Y.B. Salmona, R.B. Machado, and G.R. Colli. 2015. Habitat loss and the effectiveness of protected areas in the Cerrado Biodiversity Hotspot. Natureza & Conservação 13: 35–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ncon.2015.04.001.
Gardner, C.J. 2011. IUCN management categories fail to represent new, multiple-use protected areas in Madagascar. Oryx 45: 336–346. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605310001808.
Geldmann, J., A. Manica, N.D. Burgess, L. Coad, and A. Balmford. 2019. A global-level assessment of the effectiveness of protected areas at resisting anthropogenic pressures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116: 23209–23215. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1908221116.
Gray, C.L., S.L.L. Hill, T. Newbold, L.N. Hudson, L. Boïrger, S. Contu, A.J. Hoskins, S. Ferrier, et al. 2016. Local biodiversity is higher inside than outside terrestrial protected areas worldwide. Nature Communications 7: 12306. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12306.
Halada, L., D. Evans, C. Romão, and J.E. Petersen. 2011. Which habitats of European importance depend on agricultural practices? Biodiversity and Conservation 20: 2365–2378. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-011-9989-z.
Hansen, M.C., P.V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S.A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S.V. Stehman, et al. 2013. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342: 850–853. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1244693.
Heino, M., M. Kummu, M. Makkonen, M. Mulligan, P.H. Verburg, M. Jalava, and T.A. Räsänen. 2015. Forest loss in protected areas and intact forest landscapes: A global analysis. PLoS ONE 10: e0138918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138918.
Hill, J.E., T.L. DeVault, and J.L. Belant. 2020. Protected areas reduce poaching but not overall anthropogenic mortality of North American mammals. Global Ecology and Conservation 21: e00810. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00810.
Ho, D.E., K. Imai, G. King, and E.A. Stuart. 2011. MatchIt: Nonparametric preprocessing for parametric causal inference. Journal of Statistical Software 42: 1–28. https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v042.i08.
Jones, K.R., O. Venter, R.A. Fuller, J.R. Allan, S.L. Maxwell, P.J. Negret, and J.E.M. Watson. 2018. One-third of global protected land is under intense human pressure. Science 360: 788–791. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aap9565.
Joppa, L.N., and A. Pfaff. 2009. High and far: Biases in the location of protected areas. PLoS ONE 4: e8273. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008273.
Joppa, L.N., and A. Pfaff. 2011. Global protected area impacts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278: 1633–1638. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.1713.
Keller, B., and E. Tipton. 2016. Propensity score analysis in R: A software review. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics 41: 326–348. https://doi.org/10.3102/1076998616631744.
Leberger, R., I.M.D. Rosa, C.A. Guerra, F. Wolf, and H.M. Pereira. 2020. Global patterns of forest loss across IUCN categories of protected areas. Biological Conservation 241: 108299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108299.
Leroux, S.J., and J.T. Kerr. 2013. Land Development in and around protected areas at the wilderness frontier. Conservation Biology 27: 166–176. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01953.x.
Leroux, S.J., M.A. Krawchuk, F. Schmiegelow, S.G. Cumming, K. Lisgo, L.G. Anderson, and M. Petkova. 2010. Global protected areas and IUCN designations: Do the categories match the conditions? Biological Conservation 143: 609–616. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2009.11.018.
Locke, H., and P. Dearden. 2005. Rethinking protected area categories and the new paradigm. Environmental Conservation 32: 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892905001852.
Mallarach, J.M., J. Morrison, A. Kothari, F. Sarmiento, J.A. Atauri, and B. Wishitemi. 2008. In defence of protected landscapes: a reply to some criticisms of category V protected areas and suggestions for improvement. In Defining protected areas: An international conference in Almeria, Spain, ed. N. Dudley and S. Stolton, 31–37. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Mammides, C. 2020a. A global analysis of the drivers of human pressure within protected areas at the national level. Sustainability Science 15: 1223–1232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00809-7.
Mammides, C. 2020b. A global assessment of the human pressure on the world’s lakes. Global Environmental Change 63: 102084. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102084.
Matthews, J.A. 2014. High nature value farmland. In Encyclopedia of environmental change, ed. J.A. Matthews. London: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446247501.n1868.
Mccaffrey, D.F., B.A. Griffin, D. Almirall, M.E. Slaughter, R. Ramchand, and L.F. Burgette. 2013. A tutorial on propensity score estimation for multiple treatments using generalized boosted models. Statistics in Medicine 32: 3388–3414. https://doi.org/10.1002/sim.5753.
Miranda, J.J., L. Corral, A. Blackman, G. Asner, and E. Lima. 2016. Effects of protected areas on forest cover change and local communities: Evidence from the Peruvian Amazon. World Development 78: 288–307. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2015.10.026.
Muñoz, L., and V.H. Hausner. 2013. What do the IUCN categories really protect? A case study of the alpine regions in spain. Sustainability (Switzerland) 5: 2367–2388. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5062367.
Nelson, A., and K.M. Chomitz. 2011. Effectiveness of strict vs. multiple use protected areas in reducing tropical forest fires: A global analysis using matching methods. PLoS ONE 6: e22722. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0022722.
Olson, D.M., E. Dinerstein, E.D. Wikramanayake, N.D. Burgess, G.V.N. Powell, E.C. Underwood, J.A. D’amico, I. Itoua, et al. 2001. Terrestrial ecoregions of the world: A new map of life on Earth conservation planning. BioScience 51: 933–938.
Pfaff, A., J. Robalino, E. Lima, C. Sandoval, and L.D. Herrera. 2014. Governance, location and avoided deforestation from protected areas: Greater restrictions can have lower impact, due to differences in location. World Development 55: 7–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.01.011.
Phillips, A. 2007. A Short History of the International System of Protected Areas Management. In Parks, vol. 14, ed. N. Dudley and S. Stolton, 18–21. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Porter-Bolland, L., E.A. Ellis, M.R. Guariguata, I. Ruiz-Mallén, S. Negrete-Yankelevich, and V. Reyes-García. 2012. Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics. Forest Ecology and Management 268: 6–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2011.05.034.
Ramsey, D.S.L., D.M. Forsyth, E. Wright, M. McKay, and I. Westbrooke. 2019. Using propensity scores for causal inference in ecology: Options, considerations, and a case study. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 10: 320–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13111.
Ridgeway, G., D. McCaffrey, A. Morral, L. Burgette, and B. A. Griffin. 2017. Toolkit for weighting and analysis of nonequivalent groups: A tutorial for the twang package. RAND Tool: 1–30.
Sanderson, E.W., M. Jaiteh, M.A. Levy, K.H. Redford, A.V. Wannebo, and G. Woolmer. 2002. The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild: The human footprint is a global map of human influence on the land surface, which suggests that human beings are stewards of nature, whether we like it or not. BioScience 52: 891–904. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0891:THFATL]2.0.CO;2.
Scharlemann, J.P.W., V. Kapos, A. Campbell, I. Lysenko, N.D. Burgess, M.C. Hansen, H.K. Gibbs, B. Dickson, et al. 2010. Securing tropical forest carbon: The contribution of protected areas to REDD. Oryx 44: 352–357. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605310000542.
Schleicher, J., C.A. Peres, and N. Leader-Williams. 2019a. Conservation performance of tropical protected areas: How important is management? Conservation Letters 12: e12650. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12650.
Schleicher, J., J. Eklund, M.D. Barnes, J. Geldmann, J.A. Oldekop, and J.P.G. Jones. 2019b. Statistical matching for conservation science. Conservation Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13448.
Schulze, K., K. Knights, L. Coad, J. Geldmann, F. Leverington, A. Eassom, M. Marr, S.H.M. Butchart, et al. 2018. An assessment of threats to terrestrial protected areas. Conservation Letters 11: e12435. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12435.
Seiferling, I.S., R. Proulx, P.R. Peres-Neto, L. Fahrig, and C. Messier. 2012. Measuring protected-area isolation and correlations of isolation with land-use intensity and protection status. Conservation Biology 26: 610–618. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01674.x.
Shafer, C.L. 2015. Cautionary thoughts on IUCN protected area management categories V–VI. Global Ecology and Conservation 3: 331–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2014.12.007.
Shafer, C.L. 2020. Arguments for and against IUCN protected area management category VI with a review of state versus community governance. Journal for Nature Conservation 53: 125697. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2019.02.005.
Sheppard, D. 2008. Using the IUCN categories in policy decisions. In Defining protected areas: An international conference in Almeria, Spain, ed. N. Dudley and S. Stolton, 109–112. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Terborgh, J. 2004. Reflections of a scientist on the World Parks Congress. Conservation Biology 18: 619–620. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.01837.x.
Tucker, M.A., K. Böhning-Gaese, W.F. Fagan, J.M. Fryxell, B. Van Moorter, S.C. Alberts, A.H. Ali, A.M. Allen, et al. 2018. Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements. Science 359: 466–469. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aam9712.
Venter, O., E.W. Sanderson, A. Magrach, J.R. Allan, J. Beher, K.R. Jones, H.P. Possingham, W.F. Laurance, et al. 2016a. Global terrestrial Human Footprint maps for 1993 and 2009. Scientific Data 3: 160067. https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2016.67.
Venter, O., E.W. Sanderson, A. Magrach, J.R. Allan, J. Beher, K.R. Jones, H.P. Possingham, W.F. Laurance, et al. 2016b. Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation. Nature Communications 7: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12558.
Visconti, B.P., S.H.M. Butchart, T.M. Brooks, P.F. Langhammer, D. Marnewick, S. Vergara, A. Yanosky, and J.E.M. Watson. 2019. Protected area targets post-2020. Science 364: 239–241. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aav6886.
Wasserstein, R.L., A.L. Schirm, and N.A. Lazar. 2019. Moving to a World Beyond “p < 0.05.” American Statistician 73: 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/00031305.2019.1583913.
Watson, J.E.M., N. Dudley, D.B. Segan, and M. Hockings. 2014. The performance and potential of protected areas. Nature 515: 67–73. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13947.
Wendland, K.J., M. Baumann, D.J. Lewis, A. Sieber, and V.C. Radeloff. 2015. Protected area effectiveness in European Russia: A postmatching panel data analysis. Land Economics 91: 149–168. https://doi.org/10.3368/le.91.1.149.
West, P., and D. Brockington. 2006. An anthropological perspective on some unexpected consequences of protected areas. Conservation Biology 20: 609–616. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00432.x.
West, P., J. Igoe, and D. Brockington. 2006. Parks and peoples: The social impact of protected areas. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 251–277. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123308.
We are thankful to the researchers at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-WCMC) for the data on protected areas, to Oscar Venter and colleagues for the data on human footprint, and to Matias Heino and colleagues for the data on forest cover. We are also thankful to the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) for the World Cities dataset and to Giuseppe Amatulli and colleagues for the topographical data. Lastly, we are thankful to the four anonymous reviewers for their positive and constructive feedback.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Elleason, M., Guan, Z., Deng, Y. et al. Strictly protected areas are not necessarily more effective than areas in which multiple human uses are permitted. Ambio 50, 1058–1073 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-020-01426-5
- Aichi Biodiversity Target 11
- Convention on Biological Diversity
- Human footprint index
- Protected planet