New York (August 31, 2020) – A new analysis by a team of scientists from Sapienza University of Rome, WCS, and the University of Queensland, published in the journal Conservation Letters, reveals that many imperiled mammal species have become almost completely dependent on protected areas, and without them, would likely vanish.

The scientists compared current distributions of a representative set of 237 threatened terrestrial mammal species from the 1970s to today, measuring changes in species’ ranges and overlaid them with the protected area network in the past and present.

They found that for 80 percent of the species, the proportion of range covered by protected areas has at least doubled in the last 50 years, and 10 percent of the species analyzed live predominantly on protected land.

For example, around 80 percent of the range of the Greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is currently protected compared to just 3 percent in the 1970s, and the species has lost more than 99 percent of its distribution in the last 50 years. The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is one of the most threatened mammals in the world. It lost 70 percent of its distribution in the last 50 years and with the majority of its population found in two protected sites in Central Asia, with isolated populations elsewhere. African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) have suffered an 89 percent range loss, with just 15 percent of its range protected in 1970s, but 71.6 percent protected today.

African lions (Panthera leo) have lost approximately 85 percent range loss; 16 percent of its range was protected in 1970s as compared to 64 percent protected today. Tigers (Panthera tigris) have experienced an 82 percent range loss; 4.5 percent was protected in the 1970s, 31 percent protected today.

Says the study’s lead author Michela Pacifici of Sapienza University. “Our results clearly show that protected areas are vital for ensuring the persistence of key mammals that lost a disproportionate amount of range. When these sites are well managed, resourced and well-placed within the wider landscape, they have every chance in halting the threatening processes causing the decline of iconic mammal species.”

Since the 1970s, the global network of protected areas has experienced a fourfold expansion, and some of these protected sites have been crucial to protect and even enhance wildlife populations. However, there is increasing debate around the role of the global protected area estate in sustaining and recovering threatened species. 

The authors note that the rate at which species have disappeared from their past (1970s) range has largely surpassed the rate by which protected areas have been created, pointing to the obvious fact that time is running out to save many of these species.

The global community will come together and debate new post‐2020 conservation goals under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and protected area targets and future financing will play a central role. It is vital well‐placed and well-managed protected areas in ensuring many mammal species persist and have a change to recover in the wild is formally recognized, say the authors.

Said the paper’s senior author, James Watson from WCS and the University of Queensland: “There is little doubt that without protected areas we would have lost amazing species like tigers and mountain gorillas. This science clearly shows that to abate the extinction crisis, we need better funded and more protected areas that are well-supported and well-managed by governments and other land managers.”

The authors say that to ensure the long‐term survival of mammals, and indeed other animals as well, global conservation policies must focus on securing those critically important protected areas and, at the same time, reward those efforts that ensure re-expansion and restoration of wildlife populations into territories beyond protected area boundaries. This means focusing on retaining Earth's remaining intact ecosystems that contain key protected areas and prioritizing efforts to restore habitat corridors between isolated reserves that best provide opportunities for movement and genetic exchange.