by Tafadzwa Shumba

It has become apparent that state-owned protected areas may not be sufficient to achieve global conservation targets. Consequently, there has been increased attention on Private Land Conservation Areas (PLCAs) to chip in as a complementary conservation strategy. These privately owned property can increase the total area available for conservation, improve ecological connectivity, and increase the diversity of tenure types and conservation models.

However, there is limited understanding of how effective PLCAs are in conserving biodiversity long-term, or how different factors influence their effectiveness. In an article recently published in Global Ecology and Conservation, we investigated how biophysical and socio-economic factors influenced the effectiveness of PLCAs across South Africa, using natural land cover change (1990 – 2013) as a proxy for effectiveness. Losses in natural land cover to, for example agriculture, mining or infrastructure, are considered to reflect losses in the biodiversity that depended on that vegetation.

South Africa has a long history of private land conservation. Thanks to legislation that enables private property owners to own and use wildlife, wildlife-based land uses such as ecotourism and hunting have become viable, particularly in areas that were historically marginal for agriculture. Given that many of these areas transitioned to wildlife because it was a viable livelihood, as opposed to primarily for conservation goals, it is unclear how effective they actually are in protecting biodiversity long-term. PLCAs in South Africa vary in degree of protection and regulation, from formally recognised and regulated contractual parks and nature reserves, that form part of the country’s official protected area estate, to informally conserved areas that receive no legal protection and minimal regulation. South Africa’s Protected Area Expansion Model places emphasis on the importance of PLCAs to meet the country’s conservation targets, presenting an interesting case study to understand how different factors influence their effectiveness.

Overall, we found a net gain in natural cover across PLCAs in South Africa over the 23 years. Biophysical and legal factors had low explanatory power for the variation in natural land cover loss on PLCAs. This is contrary to state-owned protected areas, where biophysical factors such as size, accessibility and terrain (and thus human pressure), influence effectiveness. By contrast, on PLCAs we found effectiveness was most influenced by the property’s management strategy. PLCAs that attracted high volumes of visitors to small properties to view charismatic “Big 5” wildlife were less effective in conserving natural land cover than larger, more exclusive “Big 5” PLCAs, and those focused on hunting – that typically lack large mammals such as elephants and lions. This could be because supporting large mammals on small properties at densities desired by visitors is detrimental to vegetation health. Overall, site-specific management factors were better at explaining the effectiveness of PLCAs than biophysical factors, highlighting the importance of endogenous factors on influencing effectiveness in biodiversity conservation.

Our findings indicate that conservation practitioners and policy makers need to recognise the diverse goals, motivations and management models of PLCAs when considering how to support them in conserving biodiversity. Future studies could explore whether these trends hold for other proxies of biodiversity conservation, beyond land cover change

For more information, read the journal article here.