Protected Areas like Virunga Are a Gift Handed from One Wise Generation to the Next

“One of the major tenets behind the creation of a national park, or other protected area, is that it will not fade, but remain in essence beyond the pressures of human society, enjoyed by current generations while being preserved for future ones. The protected area is a gift, in a way, handed from one wise generation to the next.” Jeremy Hance

The following article is an extract from “Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement as a threat to iconic protected areas” by Siyu Qina*,#, Rachel E. Golden Kronera,b, Carly Cookc, Anteneh T. Tesfaw,a† Rowan Braybrookd, Carlos Manuel Rodriguezd⁑, Claire Poelkinga‡, Michael B. Masci


National parks and other protected areas (PAs) are key components of the conservation toolbox. The global PA estate has grown from a handful of sites in 1900 to over 200,000 PAs today, covering approximately 14.9% of terrestrial areas and inland waters and 7.3% of marine and coastal areas (UNEP-WCMC et al. 2018). Throughout the modern history of PAs, their creation has been motivated by the need to protect spectacular landscapes, conserve biodiversity, and support ecosystems services (Watson et al. 2014). However, PA effectiveness varies by geography, PA governance and other characteristics, socioecological context, and management capacity (Joppa & Pfaff 2010; Pfaff et al. 2014; Gill et al. 2017).

Despite the net growth in protected lands and waters, research (Mascia et al. 2014; Forrest et al. 2015; Pack et al. 2016; Cook et al. 2017, Golden Kroner et al. 2019) reveals widespread, albeit underreported, protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD).


Downgrading is a decrease in legal restrictions on the number, magnitude, or extent of human activities within a PA; downsizing is a decrease in the size of a PA as a result of excision of an area of land or sea area through a legal boundary change; and degazettement is a loss of legal protection for an entire PA (Mascia & Pailler 2011). More than 3,700 enacted PADDD events have been documented in 73 countries from 1892 to 2018, affecting about 2 million km2 (Golden Kroner et al. 2019). Proximate causes of PADDD include industrial-scale resource extraction and development, local land pressures and land claims, and, to a much lesser extent, conservation planning (Mascia et al. 2014). Although the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) calls for protecting 17% of terrestrial area by 2020, PADDD not only hinders national progress toward Aichi Target 11 (Mascia et al. 2014), but may also accelerate tropical deforestation and carbon emissions (Forrest et al. 2015) and exacerbate habitat fragmentation (Golden Kroner et al. 2016).

Emerging evidence indicates that even iconic PAs are vulnerable to PADDD (Table 1), including those recognized by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their outstanding values (Mascia et al. 2014, Allan et al. 2017). More than a quarter of UNESCO World Heritage Sites are threatened by existing or proposed oil and gas extraction (Osti et al. 2011; Veillon 2014), an activity incompatible with World Heritage status (UNESCO 2017a). The underlying drivers of PADDD often differ by country and context due to differences in legal frameworks, socioeconomic contexts, and political dynamics, making it challenging to generalize about drivers and impacts.

Read more more about Yosemite National Park, Arabian Oryx Sanctuary and Yasuní National Park here: Qin_et_al-2019-Conservation_Biology.

Virunga National Park


Established in 1925, Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa. Located on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Fig. 4), Virunga National Park covers over 8,000 km2 of diverse ecosystems and geological features (Inogwabini et al. 2005). The park is also known for its megafauna, notably mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei), elephants (Loxodonta africana), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) (UNESCO 2017b). Within the park, 50,000 people directly or indirectly depend on the fishing industry associated with Lake Edward (Dalberg 2013).

Virunga National Park became a World Heritage Site in 1979 (UNESCO 1979) and was listed as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1996 (The Ramsar Convention Secretariat 1996). Since the early 1990s, armed conflicts in and around Virunga National Park have led to poaching and deforestation (UNESCO 1994b). In 2006 the DRC government granted an oil concession for block V (Fig. 4) (SOCO International 2014). A Presidential Decree in 2010 ratified the contract and approved exploration activities, hence downgrading 3,897 km2 of the PA that overlapped the oil block (Dalberg 2013), enabling bathymetry survey, a seismic survey, and several geological studies within the park (SOCO International 2014).

In response to opposition from UNESCO and civil society, SOCO halted oil exploration in Virunga in 2014 but advised the DRC government to downsize the park (Gouby 2015). In 2015 the DRC parliament passed the new Hydrocarbon Code (Cabinet of the President of the Republic 2015) enabling oil exploration to be authorized within PAs, which constituted a systemic downgrade of all PAs in the country. The Hydrocarbon Code also made the downsizing and degazettement of PAs legally possible for oil and gas extraction (Cabinet of the President of the Republic 2015). In 2018 the government proposed to downsize 21% (1,720.75 km2) of Virunga, as well as 2,767.5 km2 of the Salonga National Park, another World Natural Heritage site, to allow oil drilling (Mwarabu & Ross 2018). If enacted, the proposed downsize would likely negatively impact biodiversity and the livelihoods of people who depend on fishing associated with Lake Edward and increase carbon emissions (Peyton 2018).

Lessons from Cases of PADDD in Iconic Protected Areas

Most of the PADDD events we described relate to common causes of PADDD (Mascia et al. 2014), including industrial causes, such as infrastructure development (e.g., Yosemite) and resource extraction (e.g., Yasuní, Virunga), and local causes, such as degradation and land grants (e.g., Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, Yasuní). Pressures to develop and exploit natural landscapes are widespread, and even iconic PAs are not immune to them. Yet, little is understood about the conditions under which these pressures translate into PADDD or are resisted. Identifying these patterns is particularly difficult when many PADDD events are not detected and the causes of many events remain unknown (WWF & CI 2018).

While many elements of the case studies are common to PADDD events more generally, some elements have been overlooked– in particular, the impact of public pressure in moderating or reversing PADDD decisions. For example, pressure from UNESCO and civil society in Virunga National Park led to the reversal of PADDD. The iconic status of these PAs may not be common for all PAs at risk of PADDD, but the cases demonstrate the potential role that greater transparency around PADDD could play in ensuring decisions about the use of protected public lands are perceived as legitimate by the public.

The cases also illustrate the diversity of mechanisms through which PADDD can be enacted (Table 2), such as executive and legislative actions (Yasuní), PA legislation (Yosemite), and other natural resource legislation (e.g., the Hydrocarbon Code in DRC). Some legislative changes can impact all PAs of a particular category (systemic changes), as highlighted in the case of Virunga National Park and previously documented in Peru and Australia (Forrest et al. 2014; Cook et al. 2017). Mechanisms that require agreement from multiple parties to terminate protection may reduce the incidence of PADDD (Hardy et al. 2017).

While providing insights into impacts of individual PADDD events, these case studies highlight the critical gap in our understanding of short and long-term impacts at national and global scales. Specifically, the Yosemite case study demonstrates that restoring protections may reduce impacts on areas relative to those where PADDD remains in place (Golden Kroner et al. 2016), revealing a temporal element to the impacts of PADDD which is yet to be investigated in other PADDD research.


Widespread legal changes to PAs over the past century (Golden Kroner et al. 2019) have affected even some of the world’s most iconic protected lands and waters. With the expansion of PA networks and growing development pressures (Lambin & Meyfroidt 2011; Pouzols et al. 2014; Allan et al. 2017), future conservation success will depend not only on how quickly new areas can be conserved but also on how existing PAs are maintained. Strategic investment in further research, policy reform, and capacity development is key to ensure that PAs can realize their full potential. Collaboration between academics, policymakers, and civil society is essential to achieve the longterm conservation of nature and sustainable development in a dynamic world.

From : “Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement as a threat to iconic protected areas” by Siyu Qina*,#, Rachel E. Golden Kronera,b, Carly Cookc, Anteneh T. Tesfaw,a† Rowan Braybrookd, Carlos Manuel Rodriguezd⁑, Claire Poelkinga‡, Michael B. Masci

Source: Wiley Online Library