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'Mixed success' for protected areas in East Africa 

Forest clearence in Gamo Highlands, Ethiopia. Photo by Dr Rob Marchant

Research led by the University of York has found wide variability in the effectiveness of protected areas in conserving East Africa’s evergreen forests.

Protected areas are intended to conserve habitats and species, but the researchers found these areas are coming under increasing pressure from human population growth and demands for natural resources. These factors cause forest loss contributing to increased carbon emissions and reduced biodiversity.

The study, published in PLOS One, covered all categories of protected areas in East Africa - National Parks, Forest Reserves, Nature Reserves and Game Parks. It investigated the effectiveness of each in conserving evergreen forests between 2001 and 2009.

Large areas of evergreen forests have been lost from East Africa during the 20th century

Dr Rob Marchant

It also looked at the rates of deforestation within park boundaries, in park buffer zones and in unprotected land generally.

Co-ordinating author Dr Rob Marchant, from the University of York’s Environment Department, said: “Large areas of evergreen forests have been lost from East Africa during the 20th century, resulting in carbon emissions, reduced habitat for forest dependent biodiversity and reduced availability of essential ecosystem services.

“Initial conservation in East Africa, as elsewhere, focussed on creating protected areas. However, these areas worldwide have faced challenges imposed by inadequate park budgets, varying public and political support and development pressures beyond park boundaries.

“Our study found that since 2001 forest cover in East Africa has decreased in all countries, except the Southern Sudan region, and most severely in the previously forest-rich countries of Uganda and Rwanda.”

The researchers found that forest decrease was strongest outside protected areas, but also found wide variations in the effectiveness of protected areas, depending on their protection status, the initial forest size and location of the park.

‌They found National Parks, which are often the best funded and protected areas, increased their forest area by 3.2% during the time period, while Game Parks were the least effective, losing 24.4% of their forest cover present in 2001.

They also found evidence of mixed success within protection categories, with nearly 50% National Parks and Nature Reserves, 61% of Forest Reserves and 92% of Game Parks judged to be ineffective.

The authors suggest that local community involvement can improve forest conservation.

Dr Marchant said: “Effective Nature Reserves and Forest Reserves such as Mukogodo Forest Reserve in Kenya, demonstrate that participatory forest management can significantly improve forest conservation outcomes.

“However, human pressure is also shown to lead to deforestation encroaching on park boundaries, especially among less well-protected parks, and some countries – Uganda, Burundi, Zambia – fare worse than others.”

The authors conclude that human pressure, forest accessibility, protection status, distance to fires and long-term annual rainfall were highly significant drivers of forest loss in East Africa.

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