The Role of Private Property in Conservation

Image Credit: Endre Grüner Ofstad,CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Guest post by Endre Grüner Ofstad. Norwegian version available here.

Privately protected areas provide key opportunities for the regional persistence of large‐ and medium‐sized mammals (2018) Clements et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, 56(3),

The Crux

When humans settle down in new areas, they usually settled in the most productive and species-rich areas. Now, years later, these productive areas are usually still productive, but often still in private hands. However, today more and more species are facing extinction, and many would be helped by the protection of these areas. Protected areas are areas that are set aside to ensure the viability of certain species by limiting human exploitation of the local natural resources. However, this might be costly, and these hot-spot areas likely overlap with agricultural or other natural resource exploitations, with the result that protected areas are often located to economical marginal and state-owned lands. To counter this, one might include lands offered voluntarily by private owners. But are the lands they’re offering of any conservation value?

How it Works

The study took place in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) in South Africa. This region is extremely biodiverse, but particularly known for its vast numbers of endemic flora. There are a number of local agencies aiming to protect the threatened flora and increase connectivity between protected areas across the region. Yet the region also exhibits rich faunal diversity, which has traditionally received less attention. This study aims to establishing large enough protected areas to also maintain viable mammal populations, such as the endemic antelope Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis). By increasing the number of privately protected areas one might also achieve other targets of the CFR’s action plan, common to many other sites as well: increase connectivity, increase participation of local stakeholders and reduce the influence of agricultural activities on biodiversity.

The region contains many protected areas, which were classified as either state, private or mixed owned. Based on the potential population size of species within each area the authors calculated the irreplaceability of each area. An area’s irreplaceability is a measure of how likely the protection of that area is to help achieve conservation targets.

Did You Know: Umbrella Species

This study focuses on large mammals. In light of recent years’ emphasis on the importance of insects this focus might seem a bit misplaced. This can be argued from a umbrella species-concept, where by protecting a given species one also protects many other species. An umbrella species should be evaluated according to several criteria: well-known biology; large home range size; high probability of population persistence; co-occurrence of species of conservation interest; management needs that are beneficial to co-occurring species; sensitivity to human disturbance; and ease of monitoring. Despite some ambiguity in the utility of this concept, it overall shows merit.

What They Found Out

As expected, state-owned land constituted the majority of the protected areas, but the total (gamma) biodiversity and variation in (beta) biodiversity across protected areas was larger for privately-protected areas. Moreover, as the size of the protected area increased there was a more rapid increase in species richness on private-lands, while species diversity increased similarly on private- and mixed-owned protected areas, and both diversity and richness increased much less on state-owned protected areas.

Private-protected areas were more likely to be in areas of higher irreplaceability, i.e. excluding these would reduce the probability of achieving the conservation targets.

Mixed-owned areas are larger than state- or privately-protected areas. 22-25% of large carnivores and mesoherbivores (everything except elephants and black rhino) could only be protected on private- or mixed-owned areas. Moreover, mixed-owned areas obtained the highest number areas of with viable populations.


A Cape Grysbok (Image Credit: Jim Bleak, CC BY-SA 3.0)


The study does not address how long private owners have to commit to their lands being in protected areas. In similar conservation schemes in Norway forest owners are free to leave the scheme whenever they please. This has its merits with regards to recruiting participants to join such as scheme. However, when planning for long-term species persistence this aspect might be worth some more consideration.

In this area all protected areas are fenced by law. This might increase the effect of including private-owned areas compared to study sites with no fence, where species might be more free to move across larger areas.

So What?

Mixed-owned areas usually work in such a way that the state-owned area is enlarged with private-areas, and thus connects existing protected areas or reduced the amount of edge-to-area-ratio which both can reduce biodiversity. This is also the case when studying other areas where they have implemented private-protection schemes, such as Norway. With an increasing number of stakeholders appreciating the value of biodiversity there are more and more efforts being made to help include privately owned areas into governmental schemes. For instance, in Norway this has also been promoted in order to reduce conflict-levels between forestry and conservation interests. Knowing that habitat loss/fragmentation is among the greatest threats to biodiversity, increasing the connectivity among patches and ensuring connectivity is of vital importance in order to reach our conservation targets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s