Terrestrial Protected Areas

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Portions of land are often protected to ensure the ecological preservation of a site, encouraging the conservation of biological diversity as well as sustaining/ maintaining cultural and historical value.


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Last updated: 20 Jan 2023 | Authors: Galaletsang Keebine


The 2018 South African National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) defines terrestrial protected areas as portions of land (at least 1000 hectares in area) which are formally protected by law with the main objective of biodiversity conservation and ecological preservation. This was derived from the International Union of Nature Conservations (IUNC, 2008) definition which states, “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.” 
Protected areas can be partially or totally protected and support biodiversity as scientific reserves which protect ecosystem types, species diversity and genetic diversity (IUNC, 2008). Terrestrial protected areas include national parks, natural monuments, nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, protected landscapes etc. These sites are characterised by having limited public access so as to mitigate negative anthropogenic influences (IUNC, 2008).
Sustainable development goal 15, Life on land, directly advocates for the protection of terrestrial ecosystems through SDG target 15.1.2 that has the mandate to measure the proportion of Terrestrial Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) covered by protected areas. 
South Africa's Terrestrial Protected Areas

SDG Interactions

SDGs are complex and interlinked, as such the advancements and or deterioration of SDG 15 can, directly and indirectly, affect the attainment of other SDGs. 

According to Reid et al., 2017, the environmental SDG’s, SDG 15 along with SDG 14 (Life below water), should form the foundation for all the other SDG’s, as an ecological foundation allows for the others to thrive, through the provision of ecosystem services and promoting the practice of the sustainable use of natural resources.

Reid and company (2017) created a visualisation of the aforementioned concept in a form of a tree. The base structure (roots) being the environmental SDG’s, from which a bark, hosting several branches emerges. These branches are the various SDG’s, see figure below.

Fig 4: The derivation of sustainable development goals from the environmental goals, SDG's 14 and 15, as per Reid and others (2017) concept.

The protection of land has positive intersections with SDG 6, “Ensure availability and sustainable
management of water and sanitation for all”, with particular interlinkages being between targets 6.4, 6.5 and 6a.

  • SDG Target 6.4  aims to address water scarcity and substantially reduce
    the number of people suffering from water scarcity by increasing water-use efficiency and ensuring sustainable water withdrawals.
  • SDG Target 6.5 aims to implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including
    through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.
  • SDG Target 6a aims to expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing
    countries in water and sanitation-related activities and programmes.

Terrestrial Protected Land and Clean Water

Unstable, unhealthy and poorly managed terrestrial ecosystems have direct implications on the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption and sanitation, SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation for all). Ecosystems in a good ecological condition can sustain life and offer provisioning and regulating services (NBA, 2018). Anthropogenic activities are one of the many key pressures which negatively alter terrestrial ecosystems services.  Thus, recessions in efforts toward attaining SDG 15 can be directly associated with regressions in the availability of clean water (SDG 6). That is to say, with increased terrestrial ecosystem degradation in the forms of pollution, urbanisation, overexploitation (tragedy of the commons) and deforestation etc. there will be a reduction in the amount of safe water that is available for human use. This is a sentiment that is shared by Reid and Co (2017), that if the foundation, being SDG 14 and 15, is to crumble, be altered or become unstable, all the other SDG’s, which rely on healthy functioning ecosystems will inevitably deteriorate. Therefore, the maintenance, as well as protection of terrestrial ecosystems, are essential for water security and attaining the sustainable development goals.

The Bureau of Reclamation outlined that 71% of the planet is covered with water, however, only 3% of that is freshwater which is fit for human consumption, of which more than two-thirds (83%) are frozen as ice glaciers and unavailable for use. SDG 6 is aimed at attempting to mitigate the global effects of water scarcity, as access to clean water is essential for the survival of humans, the economy and animals on Earth (Guppy et al., 2019). According to the WHO (2018) by 2025 two-thirds of the world will have difficulty accessing clean water. For this reason, the preservation and protection of freshwater ecosystems is essential. Inland aquatic ecosystems are a source of water for societal and economic use, thus large amounts of water are required to remain within these ecosystems to ensure their health and continued provision of services (UN-WATER, 2021). That is because healthy ecosystems offer protection to the quantity and quality of freshwater. SDG 6 is therefore vital, as the lack of clean water is related to human deaths by water-borne diseases and the lack of food security, leading to hunger for subsistence farmers and decreased/exhausted income for the commercial farmers as crop farming is not viable without clean water supply (UN-WATER, 2021). The lack of crop cultivation will in turn result in bare land which is more susceptible to degradation. Thus interlinkages exist between SDG 6 and SDG 15, to safeguard the inland water ecosystems as to ensure that they remain healthy(natural or near-natural) and resilient (UN-WATER, 2021).

Inland Aquatic Ecosystems

As indicated above, SDG 6 aims to safeguard water (as a resource) from pollution, excessive exploitation and other environmental and anthropogenic pressures, so as to provide protection to the health of terrestrial ecosystems. Therefore, close collaborations exist between SDG 6 and SDG 15 focusing mostly on water quality, wastewater treatment and the reduction of environmental pollutants being fed into ecosystems as freshwater ecosystems (including natural and artificial wetlands) provide environments with resilience capabilities toward droughts, flooding and storms. (UN-WATER, 2021). Other services which these ecosystems can provide include the treating of wastewater and polluted runoff (UN-WATER, 2021).

South Africa's Inland Aquatic Ecosystems

International Policy Context

A key international instrument for terrestrial protection and sustainability is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD was developed by the United Nations as a framework for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.” The main objective of the CBD is to encourage UN member states to participate in actions, which will lead to a biologically diverse future. Furthermore, the CBD developed a set of 5 strategic global goals divided into 20 targets under the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Targets 4, 5, 7 and 11, respectively promote the expansion of protected areas. Stipulated for target 11 is a threshold to have at least 17% of terrestrial ecosystems conserved through protected areas. South Africa currently falls short of the threshold at 8.37% (Fig 1.1.3).

Similarly, sustainable development goals are a global initiative to which the 193 UN member states have pledged allegiance.  Therefore, the member states are continuously aiming towards ensuring the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems and their services by December 2020 with particular focus on forests, mountains and drylands as per SDG Target 15.1. 

National Policy Context

Monitoring and reporting of the country’s progress and implementation of the policies which promote the conservation of biodiversity has been tasked to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). For this purpose, the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) was developed by SANBI to regularly monitor and report on South Africa’s biodiversity to understand change over time. The NBA is updated every five years and is led by SANBI in collaboration with the DEFF and various other organisations. The results of the NBA are then utilised by DEFF to inform the global CBD on the country’s biodiversity status and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the progress of SDGs (van Deventer et al., 2019) 
Protected areas in South Africa are governed under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas (NEMPA) (Act 57 of 2003) while threatened ecosystems types are mandated to be listed under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) (Act 10 of 2004). These acts forms part of a larger strategy aimed towards managing and conserving biodiversity. The Act provides for the official publication of protected areas to facilitate the conservation of biological resources. The core dataset for protected terrestrial areas in South Africa is the South African Protected Areas Database (SAPAD) which is released quarterly by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).
In order to achieve the targets stipulated by international bodies, South Africa further designed short-term and long-term policies with tasks which promoted the attainment of the indicators. These included the targets of the Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF), the National Development Plan (NDP) and Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). The MTSF focuses on targeted interventions which aim to alleviate South African challenges as outlined in the 2030 NDP goals and is so reviewed, realigned and amended every 5 years. Similar to the SDGs and NDP, LDN aim to achieve their targets by the year 2030.
The NDP strives to sustain South Africa’s ecosystems and efficient use of its natural resources with the support of the environmental management and climate change programme described in priority 5 of the MTSF. While the LDN targets are specifically aimed at “protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss”. Fig 1.1.5 indicates the percentage of terrestrial ecosystems that are well protected as per SAPAD and UN reports respectively. Both reports indicate a 1% increase in protected ecosystems between 2015 and 2018. There is a 4% difference the statistics reported by both entities which can be attributed to confidence intervals associated with data reporting.

Protected Areas Data

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) has quarterly releases of spatial datasets of South African protected areas, known as the South African Protected Areas Database (SAPAD).
Terrestrial realm technical report a product of the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) which is the primary tool for monitoring and reporting on the state of biodiversity in South Africa.
SDG indicator 15.1.2 represents the global terrestrial Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) covered by protected areas as a proportion (%) of the entire land mass.


Bureau of Reclamation: https://www.usbr.gov/mp/arwec/water-facts-ww-water-sup.html accessed 13 May 2021

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