Protected natural areas


Humans have protected natural areas of various types for at least several millennia for various religious and cultural purposes. Examples include the sacred forests of South and Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, and the sacred hunting and burial grounds of various pre-industrial peoples in the New World. In the past centuries, Kings and Emperors in various European and Asian countries set aside game reserves for their own recreation, in which hunting, and in many cases any entry, by common people was strictly prohibited. The modern era of protecting natural areas by national governments for purposes deemed important by entire societies emerged in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

This movement picked up quickly worldwide and, by the early 20th Century many countries had national parks and equivalent reserves. Moreover, several (e.g. the United States and Canada) had created agencies for the sole purpose of protecting and managing them. The internationalization of conservation began with several bilateral treaties established between the U.S. and Canada in the early 20th Century to conserve either species or areas that crossed international boundaries. This movement became much more widespread with the establishment of The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN; now IUCN – The World Conservation Union) in 1948. The World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) is one of many commissions and programs under IUCN’s umbrella. Its mission is:

"To promote the establishment and effective management of a world-wide representative network of terrestrial and marine protected areas, as an integral contribution to the IUCN mission."

Internationally-recognized Categories of Protected Area

The WCPA, with the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) prepares the United Nations List of Protected Areas. Since 1994, it has recognized seven general protected area management categories (numbered one through six, with two subcategories under the first) that serve various purposes and allow or restrict different activities in an effort to both conserve natural systems and the species within them, and to meet some societal needs. They are numbered in approximate order from most to least protected, depending on what types of human uses are permitted within. In addition to these categories, WCPA maintains separate lists for protected areas that are designated under international agreements such as World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and Wetlands of International Importance. Most of these sites also fall into one of the six recognized WCPA management categories under individual national law. For each internationally-recognized protected area worldwide, the UN list provides the IUCN Management Category, size (in hectares [ha]), year of establishment and the approximate latitude and longitude, by country. The definitions of IUCN protected area management categories for protected areas worldwide are:

  • Category Ia. Strict Nature Reserves: protected areas mainly for scientific study. Area of land and/or sea possessing some outstanding or representative ecosystem, geological or physiological features and/or species, available primarily for scientific research and/or environmental monitoring.
  • Category Ib. Wilderness Area: protected area managed mainly for wilderness protection. Large area of unmodified or slightly modified land and/or sea, retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.
  • Category II. National Parks: protected area managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation. Natural area of land and/or sea, designated to (a) protected the ecological integrity of one or more ecosystems for present and future generations, (b) exclude exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation of the areas and (c) provide a foundation for spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities, all of which must be environmentally and culturally compatible.
  • Category III. Natural Monument: protected area mainly for the conservation of specific natural features. Area containing one or more specific natural or natural/cultural features which is of outstanding or unique value because of its inherent rarity, representative or aesthetic qualities or cultural significance.
  • Category IV. Habitat/Species Management Area: protected area managed mainly for conservation through management intervention. Area of land and/or sea subject to active intervention for management purposes so as to ensure the maintenance of habitats and/or to meet the requirements of a specific species.
  • Category V. Protected Landscape/Seascape: protected area managed mainly for landscape/seascape conservation and recreation. Area of land, with coast and sea as appropriate, where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant aesthetic, ecological and/or cultural value, and often with high biological diversity. Safeguarding the integrity of this traditional interaction is vital to the protection, maintenance and evolution of such an area.
  • Category VI. Managed Resource Reserve: protected area managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems. Area containing predominantly unmodified natural systems, managed to ensure long-term protection and maintenance of biological diversity, while providing at the same time a sustainable flow of natural products and services to meet community needs.


Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the West, and especially the United States, has been a major leader in the movement worldwide. The internationally-recognized protected area management categories still reflect that history. For example, Categories II and IV are the commonest types of protected worldwide and they were the first used in the United States. In the case of Category IV, these are varyingly called wildlife reserves, refuges, game reserves, etc. under different national laws. Similarly, both Category 1b (Wilderness) and Category III (Natural Monuments) are based broadly on U.S. designations, although many countries do not recognize them. With the inclusion of more developing countries into the United Nations network in the post-colonial area, the makeup and scope of the WCPA necessarily changed. By the 1980s, it was widely recognized that strictly protected areas for the purposes of nature protection and science alone (Category Ia), conservation alone (Category IV) or some combination of protection, conservation and recreational (Categories II and III) were not widely popular in developing countries compared to the West.

Several major advances were made during and after the Third World Congress on Protected Areas in 1982 (Bali, Indonesia) and the Fourth World Congress in 1992 (Caracas, Venezuela) that fundamentally changed management categories in ways more in keeping with the goals and needs of residents of developing countries. In such countries, for example, recreational tourism is primarily a luxury for national elites and foreign visitors, and many local people are dependent to varying degrees on extractive uses from protected areas. Modifications were made by WCPA in the 1980s that allow some more (limited) extractive uses from National Parks in developing countries, while maintaining their Category II designation. The WCPA responded further in 1994 by modifying the management categories, which is when Category VI (also known as Extractive Reserves) was added. While this was mostly in response to the needs of the poorer countries, it should be noted that some U.S. National Forests and National Grasslands also meet the criteria of Category VI Reserves. This inclusion had the effect of increasing (greatly in some cases) the protected area systems of many countries.

The categorization used by the WCPA is always under some degree of evolution and the United Nations List is continually monitored and amended. This is due to several factors. For examples, many countries in both developed and lesser-developed regions are actively expanding their networks by both increasing the size of areas previously protected, and by including new areas. In other cases, changes are necessarily made when protected areas are removed from the list if they do not meet management criteria set forth by the WCPA. This has been referred to as the phenomenon of ‘paper parks’: areas that are protected under national law, but in which there is no effective enforcement and in which varying degrees of illegal extraction and human settlements occur. Other problems recognized with protected area designation internationally include the fact that many areas have been protected in ecologically unproductive habitats that do not compete for human uses. Much of the park system of Nepal, for example, is located above the snowline, and much in the United States is located in deserts. There are continual recommendations, both within WCPA and within many countries, to include more areas in productive habitats, even if they are necessarily smaller in size.

In other ways, the criteria used by the WCPA are far from perfect. Management, for example, should be by the “highest competent authority,” which in most cases means the National Government. Because of this, many countries have protected areas that are to varying degrees important for conservation but are not listed. Most American States and Canadian Provinces, for example, have state and provincial park systems, as do some counties, districts, townships, in many parts of the world; depending on the site, some of these are listed by IUCN while others are not. In addition, there are various types of private protected areas under management by organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (mostly U.S.) or private land trusts in some European countries that are not included. In recent years, WCPA has made great efforts to improve the list to both remove parks and reserves that do not receive adequate protection as it is internationally understood, and include those managed by lower authorities in countries in which such systems are well established (especially in the United States and Canada). At the time of this writing, the IUCN-recognized categories of protected areas cover about 15% of the land area of Earth, but this figure varies greatly by region (e.g., about 25% in Latin America and about 2% in islands of the [[ocean#Pacific Ocean|Pacific). More coastal nations are designating marine protected areas as awareness has spread about important fisheries declines and major increases in coverage from the 1997 List to the 2003 List were in areas designated under Categories V and VI. Thus the protected area movement worldwide continues to evolve and expand.

Further Reading



Heinen, J. (2007). Protected natural areas. Retrieved from


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