Protected areas and Biodiversity Conservation

By Macleod Nyirongo

One of the greatest land-use transformations of the 20th century saw the introduction of National parks and other protected areas. Today there are over 100 000 designated protected areas in the world that help to conserve habitats for flora and fauna, sustain biodiversity, and contribute to the health, well-being and livelihoods of humans.

This huge land-use transformation has happened because humankind has come to understand that development processes and biodiversity are not separate. Habitat conservation is vital for stemming the decline in biodiversity and the establishment of protected areas is an important way of achieving this aim. Protected areas can have huge social and economic value, particularly in Zambia where national parks are a major tourist attraction and a significant source of income.

Zambia is a repository of globally significant biodiversity with very large tracts of wild areas with low human population densities. Of this, national parks (NPs), forest reserves and game management areas (GMAs) cover over 40% of the country.

Even though, Zambia has achieved notable milestones in establishing protected areas, there is a need for effective management to prevent destructive exploitation, to ensure financial sustainability and to promote well integrated land use and development planning for reasons that I will highlight below.

First, plants, animals, landscapes and ecosystems are under threat from unsustainable development processes, over-extraction of resources, the introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Rising temperatures are changing weather and vegetation patterns forcing animal species to migrate to new areas in order to survive.

Second, protection comes with a price tag because it costs money to maintain protected areas. Fortunately, there are models which have proven successful in raising financial resources to establish and maintain protected areas. One such model is to use income from tourism. Protected areas attract millions of visitors worldwide each year. Visitor fees are used to develop and protect the areas. In the case of Zambia, the number of tourists has increased in recent years reaching over 800 000 annually in 2008 which means that the prospects for this model succeeding are high.

Third, the management of protected areas must involve the needs, rights and responsibilities of local communities to ensure sustainability of the management of the protected areas.

Fourth, protected areas must be established and planned as networks rather than individual reserves. The most effective protected areas will be those connected with the wider land-use planning and resource management decision-making systems beyond their boundaries.

Done correctly, conservation of biodiversity has had and will have, directly or indirectly, a positive impact in the fight against poverty. This is true in our situation in Zambia where about 90 percent of the population are engaged in farming as their social and economic mainstay particularly in rural areas where biodiversity is crucial for their food, fuel, shelter, medicines, etc. Biodiversity also provides the ecosystem services on which society depends, including for air and water purification, soil protection, disease control, and reduced vulnerability to natural disasters such as droughts and floods.

The bottom line is that we all have to understand that biodiversity is the “mother” of social and economic development and not the other way round. It is biodiversity which makes our lives possible on earth, maintaining ecological balance and creating opportunities for well-being. So together, in an integrated way, let us reverse the loss of biodiversity!

*Macleod Nyirongo, is an economist by training and has an immense professional experience in development issues gained within the Malawi civil service and the United Nations dating back to the mid-1970s. He is currently, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Zambia.

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