We know a lot of great conservation science happens out in the field. WWF is involved in efforts ranging from tracking the movements of key species to collaborating with communities to improve human lives and the environment. But there’s a side to science at WWF that we don’t always hear about—the important work that happens when scientists are back in DC, sitting at their desks. The research we do in the office can help provide invaluable conservation insights.
A few years ago, WWF started one such “desk-based” study to better understand what happens to national parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas after they are established. Protected areas are regions designated or managed for conservation purposes and conventional wisdom suggests that once one is created, it will continue into perpetuity.
But by poring over thousands of documents, reports, and maps, and speaking with experts from around the world, our team found this is not always the case. Our detailed analysis identified a poorly understood but widespread phenomenon that was affecting protected areas globally: Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). That is, protected areas sometimes go through a legal process that makes them weaker (downgrading), smaller (downsizing), or eliminates them completely (degazettement).
Our new research looks at when and why PADDD happens in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean—regions that are particularly important to our conservation work. We identified 543 instances of PADDD across 57 countries, affecting around 500,000 km2 – roughly the size of Spain.
So why does PADDD happen? And what does it mean for conservation?
Sometimes PADDD is a way to restore lands to indigenous communities, or to allocate land more efficiently for conservation. More often though, PADDD is a response to local land pressures and land claims, or the result of industrial scale extraction and production that may present a challenge to conservation goals. We also know there is more to learn about PADDD, and how it affects the places we care about.
There are, of course, limits to what we can do from our desks here in DC. Despite putting a lot of work into collecting information about PADDD, we realized there’s still a lot of information out there that we just don’t have yet. To tackle this problem, WWF launched the PADDDtracker.org website last year. This “wiki” style map-based website helps users learn about PADDD and allows them to add their own PADDD data. Since its launch, we’ve had over 6000 people from 143 countries visiting the site to learn about PADDD or to add new information.
This week, we’re sharing our validated data with the public. As a result, scientists anywhere can download our data on PADDD. Sitting at their desks, they can use the data for their own analyses that will help all of us better understand PADDD and its implications.
By engaging with people from all over the world, we’re able to provide a richer, more complete picture of one of the biggest issues facing protected areas today.