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Protected areas in South Asia: Status and prospects

Chowdhury S, Alam S, Labi MM, Khan N, Rokonuzzaman M, Biswas D, Tahea T, Mukul SA & Fuller RA (2022) Protected areas in South Asia: Status and prospects. Science of the Total Environment, 811, 152316.

Natural ecosystems globally have been disrupted by anthropogenic activities, and the current biodiversity extinction rate exceeds the natural extinction rate by 1,000-fold. Protected areas (PAs) help insulate samples of biodiversity from these human-induced threats; however, assessments of the factors threatening biodiversity in PAs are scarce in South Asia – one of the key global epicentres of human population growth. Here, by synthesizing published literature and analysing the current configuration of the PA estate, we discuss the trends and biases in existing knowledge, identify research gaps, measure the level of PA coverage and growth patterns, and discuss the threats to South Asian biodiversity inside PAs. We showed that published studies focused mainly on documenting species distributions in PAs, were heavily biased toward vertebrates, and had been mostly conducted in India. Nearly 70% of studies focused on the distribution of organisms, while only 9% performed conservation assessments or devised strategies to manage PAs; 70% of studies cover vertebrates, while only two studies focused on marine fauna; 50% of studies focused on India, with only a handful from Afghanistan. Only three (Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka) of the eight countries already meet a terrestrial PA representation target of 17%, while no country meets a marine representation target of 10%. Most PAs were very small, with nearly 80% below 100 km2, and 22% below 1 km2. We identified that South Asian PAs are facing a broad range of anthropogenic threats – about three in five studies reported threats inside protected areas. Due to extensive anthropogenic pressures, biodiversity in South Asia is facing an existential crisis, and society-wide collaborative efforts are needed to arrest and reverse the declines. We hope this review will stimulate efforts to capitalise on the opportunity for efficient PA growth in the region on the eve of the post-2020 global biodiversity targets.

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