Dynamics in the global protected-area estate since 2004

Nations of the world have committed to a number of goals and targets to address global environmental challenges. Protected areas have for centuries been a key strategy in conservation and play a major role in addressing current challenges. The most important tool used to track progress on protected-area commitments is the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Periodic assessments of the world’s protected area estate show steady growth over the last 2 decades. However, the current method, which uses the latest version of the WDPA, does not show the true dynamic nature of protected areas over time and does not provide information on sites removed from the WDPA. In reality, this method can only show growth or remain stable. We used GIS tools in an approach to assess protected-area change over time based on 12 temporally distinct versions of the WDPA that quantify area added and removed from the WDPA annually from 2004 to 2016. Both the narrative of continual growth of protected area and the counter-narrative of protected area removal were overly simplistic. The former because growth was almost entirely in the marine realm and the latter because some areas removed were reprotected in later years. On average 2.5 million km2 was added to the WDPA annually and 1.1 million km2 was removed. Reasons for the inclusion and removal of protected areas in the WDPA database were in part due to data-quality issues but also to on-the-ground changes. To meet the 17% protected-area component of Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 by 2020, which stood at 14.7% in 2016, either the rate of protected-area removal must decrease or the rate of protected-area designation and addition to the WDPA must increase.