The world's protected areas do benefit a broad range of species -- scientists from a collaborative research project led by the University of Sussex have discovered for the first-time.
The study, carried out by the University of Sussex working together with the Natural History Museum and the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, is the largest ever analysis of globally protected areas.
By analysing biodiversity samples taken from 1,939 sites inside and 4,592 sites outside 359 protected areas, scientists have discovered the protected area samples contain 15 percent more individuals and 11 percent more species compared to samples from unprotected sites.
The research was carried out by using a new global biodiversity database (the PREDICTS database) which contains data for approximately over one percent of all known species and spans 48 countries and 101 ecoregions -- the most comprehensive biodiversity sample of terrestrial protected areas to ever be examined.
Co-lead author of the study, Dr Claudia Gray, from the University of Sussex said: "Previously, regional or global studies of protected areas have mostly used information from satellite photos, to look at changes in forest cover. Instead, we used a particularly exciting new dataset, which brings together information collected on the ground by hundreds of scientists all over the world.
"We have been able to show for the first-time how protection effects thousands of species, including plants, mammals, birds and insects. This has provided us with important insights into these areas -- which previous studies were not able to do."
From the study, scientists also discovered protection is most effective when human use of land for crops, pasture and plantations is minimised. The results suggest that better management across the existing protected area network could more than double its effectiveness.
Dr Jörn Scharlemann, from the University of Sussex, said: "Protected areas are widely considered essential for biodiversity conservation, but our results show for the first-time that they do actually benefit a wide range of species.
"Our results reinforce recent commitments by governments for increased support and recognition of the importance of protected areas worldwide.
"We cannot deny the global importance of these areas and we must ensure that governments across the world recognise their significance and work to improve their effectiveness.
"Protected areas do not currently benefit all species -- but what we have shown in our study is they have the potential to help us conserve some of the most biodiverse areas on Earth -- which is why they vitally need increased global support."
Prof Andy Purvis, one of the paper's authors from the Natural History Museum, said: "This study shows how important questions in conservation biology can be tackled by joining forces. Hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries have generously shared their hard-earned data with us. Each one of those data sets is like a piece of a jigsaw: the overall picture only becomes clear when you have all the pieces and can put them together."
Dr Samantha Hill from the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said: "Humanity faces difficult decisions as to how best to protect biodiversity while providing for the needs of our ever-growing population. This study provides new understanding into the biodiversity found at the intersection of protected areas and human land-uses.
"This research relied upon the data collated in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) -- the most complete dataset detailing the world's terrestrial and marine protected areas. The WDPA is a joint product of the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and made publicly-available by the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre at http://www.protectedplanet.net."
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