Protected areas: Mixed success in conserving East Africa's evergreen forests

In East Africa, human population growth and demands for natural resources cause forest loss contributing to increased carbon emissions and reduced biodiversity. Protected Areas (PAs) are intended to conserve habitats and species. Variability in PA effectiveness and ‘leakage’ (here defined as displacement of deforestation) may lead to different trends in forest loss within, and adjacent to, existing PAs. Here, we quantify spatial variation in trends of evergreen forest coverage in East Africa between 2001 and 2009, and test for correlations with forest accessibility and environmental drivers. We investigate PA effectiveness at local, landscape and national scales, comparing rates of deforestation within park boundaries with those detected in park buffer zones and in unprotected land more generally. Background forest loss (BFL) was estimated at 29.3% (17,167 km2), but varied between countries (range: 20.9% to 285.7%; note: no BFL in South Sudan). We document high variability in PA effectiveness within and between PA categories. The most successful PAs were National Parks, although only 26 out of 48 parks increased or maintained their forest area (i.e. Effective parks). Forest Reserves (Ineffective parks, i.e. parks that lose forest from within boundaries: 204 out of 337), Nature Reserves (six out of 12) and Game Parks (24 out of 26) were more likely to lose forest cover. Forest loss in buffer zones around PAs exceeded background forest loss, in some areas indicating leakage driven by Effective National Parks. Human pressure, forest accessibility, protection status, distance to fires and long-term annual rainfall were highly significant drivers of forest loss in East Africa. Some of these factors can be addressed by adjusting park management. However, addressing close links between livelihoods, natural capital and poverty remains a fundamental challenge in East Africa’s forest conservation efforts.