Can Human Use Be Combined with Biodiversity Protection in the Tropics?

With the ongoing tropical biodiversity crisis, protected areas play an important role for many species. But strict protection can harm local human communities that are reliant on the lands around them for survival. In addition, resources are often lacking to prevent illegal exploitation or hunting in strictly protected areas. Community-managed reserves have been suggested as helpful in meeting these challenges, but do they protect the natural world? Successful protection seems to depend on networks of protected areas with different management regimes, but it also depends on limiting total human demands on nature.

By Pernilla Hansson

The world is currently experiencing a biodiversity crisis, the sixth mass extinction, with particularly heavy losses in the tropics. The biggest drivers of this are overexploitation and agriculture1, with increasing human pressures driven in part by increasing human populations. One of our most useful and cost-effective tools in alleviating anthropogenic pressures and protecting biodiversity is protected areas2: areas set aside to preserve wild nature, where human economic exploitation is limited.

Samburu - Daniel Fafard
The Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. Photo Daniel Fafard.

When most of us think of a protected area, we tend to think of a strict reserve, where extraction of resources is banned. While strict reserves instinctively feel like the best choice to protect biodiversity, they can cause other problems. Many areas of high biodiversity in the tropics also coincide with impoverished local communities3, and residents around protected lands are often dependent on what the lands can provide. One reason for this situation is strong human population increase. Additionally, many tropical countries lack the will or resources to enforce strict protection, resulting in large parks that are reported as strict reserves but in reality experience a lot of illegal exploitation4.

One proposed solution to the conflicts between local communities and strict biodiversity protection, is creating community-managed areas: areas where limited extraction of natural resources is allowed, but within limits made with the protection of natural resources in mind. Local communities often have knowledge about the area that can be invaluable to their management5. The involvement of local communities can increase their acceptance for protection efforts, and has been seen to positively effect locals’ livelihoods6. But can these community-managed areas be as effective as strictly protected ones at conserving biodiversity?

To answer this question, I surveyed the scientific literature on the subject in the database Web of Science, finding articles that compared areas under community-management with strictly protected areas close by. The 20 studies surveyed analysed a wide variety of habitats in the tropics.

Map 3 copy 2
The locations of the studies (a few were outside but relatively close to the tropical zone).

To compare the results, I categorised them by how successful the community-managed areas were in comparison to strictly protected ones. While some studies did draw conclusions about individual species, the categorisation was based on the general conclusion of the study, as several other studies did not differentiate between species in their results.

Comparison of success in biodiversity preservation between pairs of community-managed extractive reserves and strict reserves.

The results shed light on the possibilities and limitations of community-managed areas. Most studies, 11 of 20, reported that community-management has a negative effect on some species living in the area; apparently, such management is less effective in protecting biodiversity than strict protection. Only one study showed organisms thriving better in the community-managed area than in the strictly protected area. Failures of community-managed lands to adequately protect biodiversity have also been reported in other studies, that looked at the presence of indicator species7 and at threatened or endemic species in buffer zones8.

These results seemingly confirm what many of us already believe: effective protection of nature is incompatible with continued human use of areas (e.g. crops, careful harvest of wildlife). The negative impact of human activity on wildlife has also been demonstrated during the current coronavirus pandemic. With strong restrictions on human activity, pollution and human disturbance has decreased, resulting in turtles being able to nest without interference and the water of Venice’s canals clearing up to reveal fish populations (the implications of the pandemic have further been explored in TOP’s previous blog).

But still, one study found that community-management was better than no interference. How come? The study in question, by Attua and colleagues, looked at species diversity of trees9. Other studies in the analysis that focused on plants also studied trees, and these found no difference between the two management strategies. While this could indicate that plants are less susceptible to species loss through human use and exploitation than animals, the authors studied species diversity of trees rather than direct effects on single species, and they point out that the species composition differed between the areas compared. But extracting plant material continuously could negatively affect plant biodiversity over time10. In areas under extractive pressure, there is a risk of disturbing population dynamics and regeneration of species11, as well as a possible risk of homogenisation of plant communities.

Of the studies surveyed, quite a few report absence of difference between the two types of areas. While such studies could reflect possibilities for certain community-managed areas to protect biodiversity sufficiently well, many of these studies discussed alternative factors that may influence the result. One widely discussed possibility was the lack of enforcement in strict reserves; despite their designation, areas can still be exploited, minimising the difference between strictly protected and community-managed areas. Many countries lack the funding needed to effectively protect reserves. This can be exemplified by Brazil’s protected areas, where, in 2017, only three people were employed to manage the 42 state protected parks4. It is therefore no surprise that indigenous reserves and reserves allowing extraction of rubber or other non-timber products were virtually the only protected areas that could effectively halt forest clearing in this country12.

Brazil - Sanjayfm
The Serra do Tabuleiro State Park in Brazil. Photo Sanjayfm.

Unsurprisingly, the most studied group was mammals (11 of 20 studies), followed by birds (6 of 20). Insects only occurred in a single study. One study examined tortoises, but they were not the authors’ main focus. Studies of plants were also limited (totally 3). The exclusion of certain groups from analyses is a serious issue, as any negative effects experienced by these groups will go undetected. The effects of human disturbance most likely vary between groups, and this can be problematic for more general conclusions.

Tapir - Eric Kilby
A Central American Tapir. Photo Eric Kilby.

A potentially important effect was mentioned in one of the studies looking at several species of ungulates. In this study by Reyna-Hurtado and Tanner13, the tapir enjoyed higher population numbers in areas where selective logging and hunting were allowed, as compared to a strictly protected area nearby, while other species were negatively affected. This was due mainly to lack of economic incentive to hunt the tapir. At the moment the tapir is safe from exploitation. But if the situation changed and the tapir become a highly sought after species, for example if the hunted ungulate populations became depleted, the population would likely plummet in community-managed areas providing easy access to the species.

How political and economic changes can affect biodiversity protection is an important issue. There are currently strong political pressures from extractive companies, particularly mining and oil companies, for access to reserves. One of the targets of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was to increase global terrestrial protected areas to 17% of national lands by 2020. But many reserves have been downsized or downgraded, and some have even experienced full reversal of their protection. This has limited the ability of many countries to meet their 2020 targets for protected lands14. And even if we reached that target, conservation biologists have shown that 17% protection is not enough to prevent mass species extinction, and that 50% landscape protection is necessary to preserve 85% of Earth’s current species going forward15.

Both protection types have their flaws. While strictly protected areas are better for biodiversity in general, there are cases where community-management helps. Local people can be part of smart solutions to management problems in protected areas, and for protection of individual species. The ecologist Andrew Balmford set out to discover examples of such solutions, and describe them for various areas around the world in his book “Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success”. It should be studied by all with interest in conservation strategies.

Sometimes, the designation of an area to community-management might be the only viable protection, and prevent some exploitation of these lands. Creating a network of different protection types may give the strongest benefit, where for instance community-managed areas could act as a buffer near or around strict reserves, and connect isolated reserves. Such networks can also facilitate migration of animals and dispersal of plants, and allow species to move and adapt to climate change.2 Successful examples can be seen in Namibia, Nepal, and Bhutan, who have all managed to protect over 50% of their lands through a combination of strict and community-managed reserves15.

Wolong - Toni Wöhrl
The Wolong Nature Reserve in China. Photo Toni Wöhrl.

But this is assuming that the human populations won’t grow and that community-areas can supply their involved communities with enough resources. Otherwise, they may start overusing the area, or poaching and exploiting more strictly protected areas nearby. Rapid increases in households pose a serious threat to biodiversity, as seen in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China16. The native ethnic groups were allowed to stay on their lands within its borders, and carry out small extraction of resources. But as their populations grew, the reserve has experienced habitat loss and fragmentation, to levels similar or higher than outside the reserve. Some of the highest growth rates are found in tropical regions, especially in Africa, and while people’s economic needs are pressing, it is not honest to pretend that such growth rates can be endlessly accommodated while preventing further deterioration of wildlife.

Community-managed areas have a role to play in conservation. But they cannot replace strict reserves, which need to cover much larger areas. To get a glimpse of the largest strict reserve system in the world, check this website with fascinating and wonderful photographs of Zapovedniks in Russia (or this book)! During hard conditions under two World Wars and under Stalin’s oppression, the staff in the Zapovedniks somehow managed to safeguard these areas for the future.

Extending our network of protected areas can help nature and threatened species. But in a world of increasing human pressure, would that be enough? Without stabilising human populations and decreasing consumption, humans will continue to eat away at protected land. A coordinated effort is needed to secure the future of wildlife, not just by protecting land, but also by ensuring people’s economic security – at a human population size that allows for the success of other species, too.


For more information regarding the studies included in this analysis, please contact me at



  1. Maxwell S, Fuller RA, Brooks TM, Watson JEM. The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers. Nature. Vol. 536, 143-145. 2016.
  2. Gaston KJ, Jackson SE, Cantu-Salazar L, Curz-Pinon G. The Ecological Performance of Protected Areas. Annual Review of Ecology Evaluation and Systematics. Vol. 39, 93-113. 2008.
  3. Schwartzman S, Zimmerman B. Conservation Alliances with Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon. Conservation Biology. Vol. 19, 721-727. 2005.
  4. Campos-Silva JV, Peres CA, Antunes AP, Valsecchi J, Pezzuti J. Community-based population recovery of overexploited Amazonian wildlife. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation. Vol. 15, 266-270. 2017.
  5. Rai ND, Uhl CF. Forest Product Use, Conservation and Livelihoods: The Case of Uppage Fruit Harvest in the Western Ghats, India. Conservation Society. Vol. 2. 2004.
  6. Kusters K, Achdiawan R, Belcher B, Perez MR. Balancing Development and Conservation? An Assessment of Livelihood and Environmental Outcomes of Nontimber Forest Product Trade in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Ecology and Society. Vol. 11. 2006.
  7. Shahabuddin G, Rao M. Do community-conserved areas effectively conserve biological diversity? Global insight and the Indian context. Biological Conservation. Vol. 143, 2926-2936. 2010.
  8. Grant PBC, Samways MJ. Micro-hotspot determination and buffer zone value for Odonata in a globally significant biosphere reserve. Biological Conservation. Vol. 144, 772-781. 2011.
  9. Attua EM, Awanyo L, Antwi EK. Effects of anthropogenic disturbances on tree population structure and diversity of a rain forest biosphere reserve in Ghana, West Africa. African Journal of Ecology. Vol. 56, 116-127. 2017.
  10. Baral S, Gautam AP, Vacik H. Ecological and economical sustainability assessment of community forest management in Nepal: A reality check. Journal of Sustainable Forestry. Vol. 37, 820-841. 2018.
  11. Schumann K, Wittig R, Thiombiano A, Becker U, Hahn K. Impact of land-use and bark- and leaf-harvesting on population structure and fruit production of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) in a semi-arid savanna, West Africa. Forest Ecology and Management. Vol. 260, 2035-2044. 2010.
  12. Schwartzman S, Moreira A, Nepstad D. Rethinking Tropical Forest Conservation: Perils in Parks. Conservation Biology. Vol. 14, 1351-1357. 2000.
  13. Reyna-Hurtado R, Tanner GW. Ungulate relative abundance in hunted and non-hunted sites in Calakmul forest (Southern Mexico). Biodiversity and Conservation. Vol. 16, 743-756. 2007.
  14. Mascia MB, Pallier S, Krithivasan R, Roshchanka V, Burns D, Mlotha MJ, Murray DR, Peng NY. Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 1900-2010. Biological Conservation. Vol. 169, 355-361. 2014.
  15. Dinerstein E et al. An Ecoregion-Based Approach to Protecting Half the Terrestrial Realm. BioScience. Vol. 67, 534-545. 2017.
  16. Liu JG, Linderman M, Ouyang ZY, An L, Yang J, Zhang HM. Ecological Degradation in Protected Areas: The Case of Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas. Science. Vol. 292, 98-101. 2001.

One thought on “Can Human Use Be Combined with Biodiversity Protection in the Tropics?

  1. But now in Russia some natural reserves are attracting government-related bussiness – so they start to drill for oil, build roads and mlitary bases (as if Russia has not a lot of them already).

    Recently Russian government set a price of many anymals and birds – to be used as a base for penalties if killed illegally, A duck costs about 4 dollars. So all the ducks in Russia cost less than one A-380. Or some private jets.

    Ecology is the lowest priority in Russia now.

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