World Database on Protected Areas

Source: WDPA
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The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) is a comprehensive global spatial dataset on marine and terrestrial protected areas maintained by the United National Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Program (WCMP) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas. Governments and Nongovernmental Organiztions assist in the data collection.

UNEP-WCMC, through its Protected Areas Programme, has been compiling this information and making it available to the global community since 1981.

Protected Areas Definition

Protected areas are locations which receive protection because of their environmental, cultural or similar value. Countries often have extensive systems of protected areas developed over many years. These systems vary considerably country to country, depending on national needs and priorities, and on differences in legislative, institutional and financial support. Protected areas transcend different environments from the highest mountains to the deepest sea, across forests, deserts, lakes and even national boundaries (territories).

The WDPA uses the definition of a protected area (terrestrial, freshwater, and marine) as adopted by IUCN as the main criteria for a locations entry into the database.

A protected area is:

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.

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

The first key point of this definition is that the primary objective of the protected area is conservation of biological diversity. The second key point is that the protection is 'effective'. This will generally mean that the area is protected by an Act of Parliament, in the case of public land, or by a covenant or conservation agreement, in the case of privately owned, or indigenous land.Typically many protected areas are established (or designated) within a countries national territory (including any maritime claims) using the appropriate legislation or agreement. These protected areas, within the WDPA, are classed as nationally designated.

However there are locations of significant environmental, cultural or natural value that should be protected irrespective of the territory on which they are located. These locations are often recognized, preserved and protected under an international treaty or convention. Within the WDPA these protected areas are classed as internationally recognized.

Protected areas can be both nationally designated and internationally recognized. In some cases an internationally recognized site can be composed of multiple national designated protected areas from different countries.

Nationally Designated and Internationally Recognized Protected Areas

There are a number of globally and regionally recognized international treaties, conventions and agreements.

The most common global conventions are:

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites:

    UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB):

    The Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda and capacity building aiming to improve the relationship of people with their environment globally. Since its launch in 1970 MAB has concentrated on the development of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR). The biosphere reserve concept was developed initially in 1974 and was substantially revised in 1995 with the adoption by the UNESCO General Conference of the Statutory Framework and the [[Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves].

  • The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention):

    The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty adopted on 2 February 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. The Convention entered into force in 1975 and now (as of August 2007) has 155 Contracting Parties, or member States, in all parts of the world. The mission of the Ramsar Convention, as adopted by the Parties in 1999 and refined in 2002, is“the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

There are a number of regional international conventions including:

  • EC Birds Directive:

    In 1979, the European Community adopted the Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds (the "Birds Directive"), in response to the 1979 Bern Convention on the conservation of European habitats and species (the 'Bern Convention'). The Directive provides a framework for the conservation and management of, and human interactions with, wild birds in Europe. It sets broad objectives for a wide range of activities, although the precise legal mechanisms for their achievement are at the discretion of each Member State.

  • EC Habitats Directive:

    In 1992 the European Community adopted Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (EC Habitats Directive). This is the means by which the Community meets its obligations as a signatory of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). The main aim of the EC Habitats Directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity by requiring Member States to take measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species at a favorable conservation status, introducing robust protection for those habitats and species of European importance.

  • ASEAN Declaration on Heritage Parks:

    On 29 November 1984 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes the member countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, [Lao PDR]], Myanmar and Cambodia, declared a group of ASEAN Heritage Parks selected from each countries existing protected areas system. They agreed that common cooperation is necessary to conserve and manage such parks and reserves including the setting up of regional conservation and management action as well a regional mechanism complementary to and supportive of national efforts at implementation of conservation measures.

Disputed Territories

UNEP-WCMC operates a "take down" policy regarding disputed territories by which they remove from the WDPA any protected area submitted by a National Government for which we receive a formal written complaint from a second National Government concerning the territorial sovereignty of the concerned location.

Categorization of Nationally Designated Protected Areas

To achieve consistency in comparing protected areas across the World, the WDPA applies the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories to nationally designated protected areas where possible. The IUCN definition implies a common set of objectives for protected areas and the IUCN Category system in turn defines differences in management approaches. IUCN categories are not applied to protected areas established under international conventions or agreements (e.g. UNESCO World Heritage Sites).

IUCN Protected Area Management Categories are:

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 landform, 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.

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

United Kingdom

Due to publishing restrictions on the UK protected areas data the WDPA does not currently include these sites. UNEP-WCMC are working with data partners and UK agencies to resolve this issue.

Further Reading

  1. World Database on Protected Areas


(2009). World Database on Protected Areas. Retrieved from


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