August was a month of National Parks. Barack Obama announced a 583,000 square mile, an area twice the size of Texas, marine national park off the coast of Hawaii, making it the largest national park in the world. Not to be outdone, Russia announced an expansion of the Russian Artic National Park; increasing its size by 28,500 square miles.
Encompassing a total of 34,000 square miles, the park is now the largest in Russia.
But beyond all the dazzle and glad-handing of signing the papers on a National Park, are those already in place actually working?
This year the iconic Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, celebrated its 100th birthday. You may think that with such a lengthy amount of time the park authorities had perfected their system, you’d be wrong.
Trout Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Always Shooting, Flickr CC.
As reported in CBSNews increasing numbers of visitors to the park are causing havoc for the park services. From illegal camping to wildlife violations, theft to vandalism; tourists misbehaving and disobeying the park rules is seemingly on the increase. And it’s not an isolated case.
Across many other National Parks in the States similar things are happening. In July this year, park authorities logged more than 11,000 such incidents at America’s most visited national parks. And in 2015, 52,000 warnings were given to visitors to national parks, a 20 percent increase on 2014.
This can perhaps be written off as a lack of education. But I believe it goes deeper, people have become so absorbed in their own lives that they lose touch with reality. Everything exists purely to be “selfied” or shared on social media, the consequences be damned. But it’s not only a lack of education that is hindering protection within park boundaries, often it is the lines themselves.
Wildlife havens or holding pens?
It may be thought that national parks provide protection to wildlife, that they are areas where poachers cannot penetrate and places where the sound of a gun is never heard.
However, due to poor governance and low budgets, this is far from the case. A 2009 report found that Kenya’s wildlife was poached at the same rates within National Parks as without.
One of the most significant reasons is perhaps due to the very nature of national parks; they are lines in the sand which nature just does not obey.
“Parks in Kenya were set aside in areas where people saw large aggregations of animals and typically these were the areas where animals congregated during the dry seasons,” David Western, professor of biology at UC San Diego, said at the time of the release of the study. “They ignored seasonal migrations because people didn’t know where these animals migrated to, in many cases.”
Similarly the Galapagos Marine Reserve was for many years known as a “paper park”, more or less meaningless in the sense that conservation does not actually occur. And to draw a line in the water is considerably more difficult.
Within this park, all 50,000 square miles of it, illegal fishing for sharks, rays and sea cucumbers was, and still is to an extent, rampant. As a prime example, in May last year a huge haul of 200,000 shark fins was seized in the port of Manta, Ecuador. Fisherman would catch the fish from inside the marine protected area and claim that it was taken from outside.
A shark fin warehouse in Singapore. Sharks are often finned as by-catch. Whether they are taken from marine protected areas or not, the result is the same. An estimated 100,000 million sharks are lost every year to feed demands for delicacies like shark fin soup. Photo by xmacex, Flickr CC.
How do you protect 50,000 square miles of open ocean? With great difficulty. Although things are improving in the Galapagos Marine Park, the illegal practices continue.
Terrestrial parks fair no better, for a soon to be published article on bushmeat trafficking in Cameroon, sources spoke to me of parks where chimpanzees had been made locally extinct due to overhunting. Some parks were paper parks, others were not. Inconsistency in which parks are protected leads to pockets of wildlife, disconnected from the wider populations. Populations become genetically unviable.
What lies beneath
National Parks are also up for sale as soon as something is found beneath them. Loopholes are found to allow whatever the precious commodity may be to be siphoned off. It’s usually oil.
Take the recent example of Murchison Falls national park in Uganda, home to an estimated 40% of the country’s oil deposits.
Rather unsurprisingly, a multi-billion pound oil plan has been signed off on by the British government according to Greenpeace’s Energydesk. If enacted, dozens of oil wells will become a feature of the park which is home to the most endangered giraffe species.
And for what? Supposedly the deal is potentially worth around £1 billion to British companies. And this isn’t the only case. Energydesk found that six British companies have exploration licenses for 29 protected areas in 8 different countries across the African continent.
If we return to Ecuador and move to Yasuni National Park, bearing in mind that this is the country which famously signed the rights of nature into its constitution, we will find that oil has been drilled in the park at a rate of 23,000 barrels a day since September.
Yasuni could have been saved. Or so Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa would have you believe. He opened his arms to the international community in 2007 and said that if they gave him $3.6billion in compensation he wouldn’t allow drilling in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT). The plan fell through. Only $200 million was raised. Hence why we are now seeing drilling in Yasuni, an area of extraordinary biodiversity. The Ecuadorean government has shut the area off, militarised it and not allowed fly-overs or journalists to go near.
The government claims that their drilling will be unlike others. It won’t damage the park.
“Thanks to the Yasuni initiative, the awareness and commitment of the Ecuadorian population to the care of the Amazon, and the environment in general, has grown enormously. As a result, the Amazon in Ecuador is better cared for than ever before,” said the government spokesman to the Guardian.
“The alternative of having children without schools, without hospitals, without health infrastructure, without clean water, is not an alternative. No nation should allow its children to live without the basics for human dignity. If that is not an alternative for the UK, it is not for Ecuador either,” he continued.
But this is hiding behind the veil of development. During research for a previous article on how oil roads changes hunting patters, it was clear how development affects communities in Ecuador. Schools that are never built, hospitals that never arrive, traditional livelihoods destroyed and replaced with the culture of consumerism. Not to mention the ecological impact, previously hunters who lived a sustainable lifestyle become traders of bushmeat pushing the forest’s wildlife into decline. But maybe Ecuador’s development is not for these people, but rather those in the cities?
Local communities hunting practices are changed by development. Access to weapons, new roads into remote areas and their hunting skills provide an easy, and often necessary, way to make cash. Photo by Kelly Swing.
National parks: a lost cause?
From this summary it may be quite easy to write off national parks as a lost cause, as a means to be seen to be doing something without actually doing much. And this is largely true, they are propaganda efforts first and foremost.
The IUCN issued a clarion call last year that governments are failing to protect some of nature’s most important areas. They based this on a report that found “only one-fifth of key sites for nature are completely covered by protected areas, with one-third lacking any protection.”
Less than half of mammals, amphibians, mangroves and marine groups have a sufficient proportion of their distributions covered by protected areas, they write. “Challengingly, the largest increases in area needing to be set aside for conservation are located in developing countries of the world, which makes considerations of the benefits from conservation especially relevant,” said Dr Neil Burgess, Head of Science at UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, a co-author of the study.
But when resources are already stretched thin on the ground, leaving current protected areas understaffed and under protected, what use is adding more to the list? Will this have any function at all?
I am given hope that there are still people fighting for national parks. It makes me believe that I am just a grumpy cynic. Whether that’s people fighting for a national park to save the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, or a park in Cameroon’s Ebo Forest, a place home to gorillas, chimps and more.
But we have to be realistic above all. Another recent report found that the world’s mammals are being eaten into extinction. 301 species, around seven percent of all mammals, are endangered primarily due to bushmeat hunting. We’d be foolish to believe that these species are not coming from within protected areas. Just like in Ecuador, greater access to remote areas brings with it immense consequences, increased hunting being one of them.
“You might rejoice at having some habitat remaining, say a pristine forest, but if it is hunted out to become an empty larder, it is a pyrrhic victory,” said Professor David Macdonald, at the University of Oxford who was part of the study.
A man holds up bushmeat in Indonesia. While many people hunt to sustain themselves, either nutritionally or economically, the practice is driving some species to the brink of extinction. Photo by CIFOR, Flickr CC.
When I spoke to conservationists who are trying to save the critically endangered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, the one that sneezes in the rain, they pinned their hopes for its survival on a new national park. I was sceptical as it is easy to see that such a venture may well end up as another paper park to add to the failure list.
But the methods which they used, building the park up from the ground with community involvement from the very start, give signs that a well-functioning national park can be a safe haven for wildlife. By bringing local people on board and gaining their trust and commitment.
Unfortunately however, if the core issues at hand are not resolved then it may be a little too late. Too many people, not enough land. If we look at the issues that have been raised, whether that is poorly eco-educated tourists flocking over parks in the States, or overfishing in Ecuador, pumping off oil in Uganda or unsustainable hunting the world over; they all appear to be connected. A rampant plundering of Earth’s natural resources to feed demand, driven by the fact that there are too many of us trying to live off too little land.
Does that mean national parks are a lost cause? Far from it. With the right management they can be highly successful, but this involves political will and the will of local communities. When this is lacking, national parks will fail time and time again. I believe it is not the national parks which will fail in the long run, but it will be ourselves, after claiming dominion over the land and declaring it under our charge, we will plunder it nonetheless. Then afterwards an enquiry will begin to find out who is to blame. I guess it will be all of us, or none of us.
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