The Varying Roles of Indigenous, Government, and Private Protected Areas in Conservation

The Gawler Ranges, an area of Indigenous protected land in South Australia (Image Credit: Korkut Tas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped)

Differences among protected area governance types matter for conserving vegetation communities at-risk of loss and fragmentation (2020) Archibald et al., Biological Conservation, 247,

The Crux

The designation of Protected Areas (PAs) has been a key tool in the fight to retain biodiversity and restore ecosystems globally. Designating a region as protected goes a long way to ensuring the survival of a wide rage of species, both locally and on much larger scales. In recent decades, private PAs have been growing in number, and on top of that, 7.8 million squared kilometres worldwide are now registered as Indigenous PAs. As a result, conservation goals are often formed with all three types of protected area in mind.

There has been ample research showing that all three types of PA have been effective in conserving wildlife and habitat types. But all three have different characteristics, both in governance and allocation. Today’s authors wanted to find out whether they protected different types of habitat, and what that could mean for conservation policy going forward.

What They Did

The researchers broke PAs throughout Australia down into the three aforementioned types. Government PAs are owned and managed by some level of government, Indigenous PAs are managed by Indigenous communities, and private PAs are generally owned by NGOs or conservation organisations.

This study evaluated the PAs on the basis of the vegetation communities inside them. Communities were classified based on whether they had been heavily fragmented in the last 200 years, suffered extensive losses (but not fragmented), both, or neither (‘lower concern’). Each PA was then evaluated based on the proportion of their area occupied by the four different categories.

Lastly, based on the criterion for a piece of land becoming a government, Indigenous, or private PA, the researchers produced a similar metric, but for the amount of land that was available to become one of the three types of PA. This was then used to create a new ‘relative representation’ metric, which judged whether the proportion of vegetation cover within PAs was equivalent to the proportion of vegetation cover within the land available to become a type of PA. So if loss communities made up 60% of land within private PAs, but only 40% of the land in Victoria available to potentially become a private PA, loss vegetation is disproportionately represented within that PA type.

Did You Know: Patch Size in Conservation Science

Often if given the choice between conserving two regions, governments and conservation organisations will often opt to protect areas with larger patches. It makes sense, the species-area rule has generally dictated that larger patches will contain more species. But more recent research suggest that traits like patch complexity may play a greater role in promoting biodiversity than previously thought. Additionally, rare species may not always pop up in larger patches, so depending on your species of concern, choosing a larger patch automatically may not be the right choice. Read more at our previous paper breakdown here.

What They Found

At a national level, government PAs had the highest representation of loss, fragmented and loss/fragmented communities. Indigenous PAs were extensive, much more so than private PAs, but were made up mostly of low concern vegetation communities. This varied from state to state, though in most cases Indigenous PAs had higher levels of low-concern vegetation than private or government PAs.

Whilst loss, fragmented, or loss/fragmented communities were more likely to be protected by government or private PAs for most states (the Northern Territory being a consistent exception), this wasn’t the case for Indigenous PAs.


The relative representation metric used an estimate of how much land was potentially available to be claimed as the three types of PA. However, for the government and Indigenous PAs, since all land can technically be claimed as either, the available space was the entire state or country. The authors acknowledge that this is not ideal, since there are patches of land throughout Australia that are incredibly unlikely to be claimed as an Indigenous PA.

So What?

This by no means indicates that Indigenous PAs do not play an important role in species conservation. Protecting low-concern land is vital for conservation purposes, as it ensures that large stretches of habitat remain intact. It also plays a complementary role to the nature of private and government PAs, which seem to have significant overlap in their conservation priorities.

It’s important to recognise that the way land has been assigned in the past has no doubt influenced the type of land within each Protected Area. Indigenous PAs have often been designated in more remote parts of Australia, with more urban, fragmented areas less likely to be returned to the land’s historical owners. As more Native Title claims are made moving forward, the makeup of Indigenous PAs could very well change.

Studies like this provide a useful overview of the different potential for conservation of Protected Areas, and can provide good indications of where different communities can start working together to achieve conservation goals.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has written the first page of his thesis introduction and is forgetting that he still has a long way to go before he’s done. You can read more about Sam’s research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

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