Protected areas for freshwater biodiversity conservation? Don’t forget the small print…

By Kathy Hughes, Freshwater Specialist, WWF-UK

Sunset in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland © Andre Dib/WWF

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has an ambitious vision: “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people”. To achieve this vision, the CBD set out 20 Aichi Targets to be met by 2020. Yet, today we are on the cusp of 2020 and biodiversity is still significantly declining with no apparent slow down. The steepest biodiversity decline of all has been observed in freshwater ecosystems, where one third of species assessed are considered to be at risk of immediate extinction (IUCN, 2018) and where wildlife is thought to be declining at twice the rate of that in terrestrial and marine realms (WWF, 2018).

Establishing protected areas is an important conservation measure recognised by Aichi Target 11, which aims for at least 17% of global inland waters to be protected by 2020. And there’s evidence that progress has been made as 15% of global inland waters are now thought to be within protected areas (Bastin et al., 2019). Furthermore Ramsar sites have continued to increase; there are now 2341 sites which cover 2.5 million sq km of inland waters across 170 countries (Ramsar, 2019). Yet, given this apparent progress, why is freshwater biodiversity continuing to decline in such a dramatic way? One indication may come from the apparent patchy coverage of protected areas, for example, within parts of Asia and Africa Bastian et al.,(2019) found that less than 5% of inland waters are protected, whilst Abell et al.,(2017) found that only around 10% of large rivers and Reis et al.,(2017) found that only around 11% of seasonal wetland are protected globally.

Aside from having a sufficient coverage of protected areas, what else could be happening to cause such dramatic losses in freshwater biodiversity? Are we missing something important? What is the ‘small print’ essential to make protected areas more effective for the conservation and restoration of freshwater biodiversity?

A gharial swimming in the Rapti River in Nepal © Karine Aigner/WWF-US

WWF supported research is providing some answers to this critical question.

A recent research objective was to understand the benefits of that protected areas have had for freshwater species to date, and under what circumstances they had been successful or had failed to conserve biodiversity. To do this we undertook a Quick Scoping Review (QSR), led by Professor Mike Acreman. QSR’s provide a standardised non-biased approach to searching and analysing the available scientific literature on a pre-defined topic. Our search criteria identified publications containing evidence in terms of empirical data (for example, maintenance or increase in the population size of a species or improvement in habitat) compared to a counter-factual (for example, before or after protected area designation, inside compared without side a protected area). Although described as “quick”, this approach is still relatively time consuming. The study took six months, analysed around 2500 papers and was peer reviewed through involvement of world-leading experts, including by Professor Angela H. Arthington*.

The review identified 75 case studies which set out how freshwater wildlife changed with protected area designation, design and management across a broad range of species and global geographies. Of these 75 case studies:

  • 52% showed a positive outcome;
  • 33% showed a neutral outcome; and
  • 15% showed a negative outcome.

This does not mean that other protected areas are not effective, but just that no evidence has been published to show if this has or has not been the case. Very few studies recorded reasons why the protected area had been successful, but multiple reasons were provided for the reported neutral and negative impacts. These included a lack of enforcement, habitat degradation, installation of dams, over-abstraction of water, invasive non-native species and other environmental problems (such as climate change or poor landscape management). Conserving aquatic habitat, including the hydrological regime (surface and groundwater), water quality, and riparian terrestrial vegetation, was found to be vital for supporting freshwater biodiversity within a number of case studies.

Banded cichlid in a tributary of the Rio Tapajos, Brazil © Michel Roggo / WWF

The review of 75 case studies identified ten lessons that are considered essential for protected area implementation to have a positive impact for freshwater biodiversity:

Lesson 1: More monitoring and research is required to quantify the effectiveness of protected areas for freshwater biodiversity conservation and to elucidate the factors that are important for their design, designation and management.

Lesson 2:Protected areas need to be of sufficient size and to incorporate various connected diverse elements of the waterscape to enable species to breed and migrate.

Lesson 3: Areas designated to protect terrestrial ecosystems can be effective for freshwater biodiversity conservation but may not always adequately integrate issues pertinent to freshwater ecosystem protection.

Lesson 4:Conserving aquatic habitat, including hydrological regime, water quality, waterbody morphology and riparian terrestrial vegetation is vital to supporting freshwater biodiversity.

Lesson 5:Protected areas should reduce pressures from grazing, inappropriate land and water management, pollution, tourism or general human disturbance

Lesson 6:External pressures in the surrounding landscape can have major control over freshwater biodiversity that may over-ride protection measures. However, in some cases protected areas can provide a defense against human pressures.

Lesson 7:Invasive species pose a major threat to freshwater biodiversity both within and outside protected areas and connectivity may enhance vulnerability. Managing pathways for invasive species can reduce their spread and protection can provide a buffer.

Lesson 8:Laws associated with designation and management of protected areas need to be enforced, but regulation activities should involve engagement with and support for local community initiatives.

Lesson 9:Maintaining traditional management practices that support cultural heritage is a central objective of many protected areas.

Lesson 10:There are many factors, including variations in natural drivers and human pressures, acting on the environment that determine biography and are not within the control of protected area managers, such as climate, natural water quality and river channel morphology. However, protected areas may help mitigate the influence of changes in some of these factors.

So, what does this all mean for the protection of freshwater biodiversity?

Although the evidence was thinner on the ground than originally hoped, the findings of this review make it clear that protected areas play an important role in conserving and restoring freshwater biodiversity. But designation of a protected area is only the first step; there is essential small print that must be adhered too –the ten lessons identified in this review must be put into practice if protected areas are to achieve beneficial outcomes for freshwater biodiversity.

Amazon river dolphin, Brazil © / Kevin Schafer / WWF


* Angela H. Arthington, Professor Emeritus, Australian Rivers Institute

  • IUCN (2018) Red List. Version 2018–3, accessed February 26th2019.
  • WWF (2018) Living Planet Report 2018 Aiming Higher. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland
  • Abell R, Lehner B, Thieme M and Linke, S (2017) Looking Beyond the Fenceline: Assessing Protection Gaps for the World’s Rivers. Conservation Letters
  • Bastin L, Gorelick N, Saura S, Bertzky B, Dubois G, Fortin M-J (2019) Inland surface waters in protected areas globally: Current coverage and 30-year trends. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210496
  • Reis, Hermoso, Hamilton, Ward, Fluet-Chouinard, Lehner and Linke (2017) A Global Assessment of Inland Wetland Conservation Status. BioScience Vol. 67 №6.
  • Ramsar (2019) Home page access 26th February 2019.