IUCN Protected Area Management Categories

Source: IUCN
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The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Protected Area Management Categories are a framework for organizing and understanding protected lands around the world. The categories came into to being following many efforts to establish a "common understanding of protected areas" when countries had very different ways of looking at protected areas, used different terms, and assigned different meanings to similar or identical terms.The situation has been summarized in IUCN's "Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories" as

The term “protected area” is therefore shorthand for a sometimes bewildering array of land and water designations, of which some of the best known are national park, nature reserve, wilderness area, wildlife management area and landscape protected area but can also include such approaches as community conserved areas. More importantly, the term embraces a wide range of different management approaches, from highly protected sites where few if any people are allowed to enter, through parks where the emphasis is on conservation but visitors are welcome, to much less restrictive approaches where conservation is integrated into the traditional (and sometimes not so traditional) human lifestyles or even takes place alongside limited sustainable resource extraction.

Confronted with such confusion, conservationists who want to understand protected lands in a systematic way, worked through much of the twentieth century to develop shared definitions and ways of looking at protected lands. The IUCN categories are the most widely accepted and used at an international level. There are six categories (IUCN published its revision of category definitions in 2008) into which protected lands can be sorted, with the first category having two subcategories:

  • Category I: Strict Protection

    • Category Ia: Strict nature reserve - strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring.

    • Category Ib: Wilderness area - usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.

  • Category II: National park - large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

  • Category III: Natural monument or feature - protected areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a land form, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological feature such as a cave or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally quite small protected areas and often have high visitor value.

  • Category IV: Habitat/species management area - protected areas to protect particular species or habitats and whose management reflects this priority. Many category IV protected areas will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.

  • Category V: Protected landscape/seascape - a protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.

  • Category VI: Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources - protected areas which conserve ecosystems and habitats, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims of the area.

Given the wide variety of approaches to defining, designating, and managing protected areas around the world, these categories are, perforce approximate, and some areas do not fit into any category and are assigned an "other" status.

Traits of Protected Areas

Protected areas which are recognized by this approach have certain traits including:

  • Have clearly defined geographical space with agreed and demarcated borders

  • Are "recognised" in some fashion such as in local, regional or national law; or by international classification such as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), or the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention). 

  • Are "dedicated" under some form of covenant to some form of long term conservation. "For IUCN, only those areas where the main objective is conserving nature can be considered protected areas; this can include many areas with other goals as well, at the same level, but in the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority"

  • Are "managed" in some fashion (even if that is a conscious decision to leave untouched by man).

Names of Protected Areas

The names of protected areas can sometimes be a guide to which category theyfall under, but not always. For example, the name "National Park" typically falls under category II. However, some national parks have been classified under other categories because they are managed for purposes more consistent with another category.

In a similar way an international designation such as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), or the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention) is not usually a good guide to the category under which it might be placed.

Objectives of Protected Areas

IUCN definitions include an "implied" set of objectives, some common to all protected areas, some specific to particular categories. Among the common objectives, IUCN asserts the following:

All protected areas should aim to:
  • Conserve the composition, structure, function and evolutionary potential of biodiversity;
  • Contribute to regional conservation strategies (as core reserves, buffer zones, corridors, steppingstones for migratory species etc.);
  • Maintain diversity of landscape or habitat and of associated species and ecosystems;
  • Be of sufficient size to ensure the integrity and longterm maintenance of the specified conservation targets or be capable of being increased to achieve this end;
  • Maintain the values for which it was assigned in perpetuity;
  • Be operating under the guidance of a management  plan, and a monitoring and evaluation programme that supports adaptive management;
  • Possess a clear and equitable governance system.
All protected areas should also aim where appropriate to:
  • Conserve significant landscape features, geomorphology and geology;
  • Provide regulatory ecosystem services, including buffering against the impacts of climate change;
  • Conserve natural and scenic areas of national and international significance for cultural, spiritual and scientific purposes;
  • Deliver benefits to resident and local communities consistent with the other objectives of management;
  • Deliver recreational benefits consistent with the other objectives of management;
  • Facilitate low-impact scientific research activities and ecological monitoring related to and consistent with the values of the protected area;
  • Use adaptive management strategies to improve management effectiveness and governance quality over time;
  • Help to provide educational opportunities (including about management approaches);
  • Help to develop public support for protection.

Applying the Protected Area Management Categories

The IUCN) Protected Area Management Categories recognise a wide range of ownership and governance forms. Protected lands may be owned by governments are various levels, be under private ownership, be owned or governed by indigenous peoples or local communities, or be under some kinds of "shared" status. The particular category under which a protected areas is placed is not affected by its ownership or form of governance. Rather, categories are applied based on the "primary management objective(s) of the protected area," where the primary management objective typically applies  to "at least three-quarters of the protected area."

In practice, this means that sometimes protected areas can fall under more than one category, such as the case where a distinct protected area managed in one way is nested within a larger protected area primarily managed in another way. Thus, the smaller area can be placed under one category and the larger area under a different category.

The IUCN) Protected Area Management Categories are used in a wide range of situations, including the World Database on Protected Areas, conservation planning, planning for climate change, policy development, international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, education, and other situations.

Further Reading

  1. Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp.


(2009). IUCN Protected Area Management Categories. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbee327896bb431f6960f4


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