Protected areas are one of the most important tools in nature conservation. Appropiately managed, they guarantee the survival of many species they host. These species include all kinds of plants and animals from trees and flowers to mosses and lichens as well as from insuspicious insects to iconic species like the panda or the tiger. But protected areas do not only protect endangered species, but also natural dynamics and valuable ecosystems. Old-growth forests, coral reefs and wetlands rely on legal protection for their survival.
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Despite their importance, protected areas can only be part of a wider strategy to preserve nature and create an environment that all species can thrive in. While they can effectively safeguard species and ecosystems that are contained within them, large migrating animals do not stick to their borders. Large carnivores for example often cover hundreds of kilometers per year to find prey and mating partners. So the question is: Are protected areas useful to protect large carnivores?
Extensive examination of Finnish protected areas
A study led the University of Helsinki tried to answer this question examining lynx, wolf, wolverine and brown bear populations in Finland. They used a large dataset of information from hunters spanning over 30 years, which allowed them to determine long-term trends on a large geographical scale. As so often, they found that there is no clear answer to this question. Surprisingly, wolverine numbers actually decreased in protected areas while they remained stable outside of them. On the other hand, lynx densities were higher in protected areas. So, does it mean that we can´t learn anything from this study? By far not.
The negative trend of wolverine populations inside northern protected areas is alarming and highlights that further research is needed to understand the dynamics of wolverine populations in Lapland, how this species is affected by illegal killing and what protected areas could do to improve this situation.
It means that we have always have to look at protected areas within the context of their surroundings. Protected areas in the sparsely populated east of Finland are large enough to support healthy large carnivore populations. However, they are also part of the reindeer husbandry area in Northern Finland, so conflicts with reindeer herders are common. Why lynx are doing better in these areas than wolverines and lynx in the west of Finland might have several reasons. Higher prey abundance, better connectivity and exchange with Russian popultaions might all play role. This shows that simply assigning protected areas is not sufficient. It is crucial to address issues like poaching or connectivity and to install effective management.