The Weather Network – Mammal ‘selfies’ show protected areas thriving thanks to species diversity

Wednesday, February 9, 2022, 9:05 p.m. – A new study from the University of British Columbia found greater diversity of mammals in study areas where the habitat had a protected designation, compared to forests and other wilderness areas with no safeguards.

Have you ever wondered if protected areas are effective in conserving wildlife? Well, new research and photos from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have given some insight into their usefulness.

A new study by UBC discovered more mammal diversity in study areas where the habitat had a protected designation, compared to forests and other wilderness areas that lacked safeguards.

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The analysis involved the use of global camera traps to study mammal species around the world. Researchers from the UBC School of Forestry examined data from 8,671 camera trap stations in 23 countries across four continents (North and South America, Europe and Asia).

The Weather Network recently spoke with UBC ecologist and professor Cole Burton and UBC forestry doctoral student Cheng Chen about the study.

Spectacled Bear/Robyn D. Appleton /UBC Faculty of Forestry
A spectacled bear captured near the Laquipampa Wildlife Refuge in Peru. (Robyn D. Appleton/UBC Faculty of Forestry)

From a “protected areas” perspective, the evidence that parks effectively protect habitat is strong, Chen said. For species residing inside parks, there are cases that have proven successful and others that have “definitely failed”.

“Mammals are a very important group of species because they have many important ecological roles in the ecosystem. Also, a mammal is a charismatic species,” Chen said.


There were two “main motivations” for the investigation, Burton said. The first is the current biodiversity crisis, with species increasingly threatened with extinction or experiencing a significant decline in their populations.

“We know the urgency to have effective conservation strategies and to make sure things like parks and reserves work as intended. That kind of motivation for conservation was a big factor,” Burton said. .

Wolf in Alberta.  Cole Burton / UBC Faculty of Forestry
A wolf photographed near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Cole Burton/UBC Faculty of Forestry)

The other element of the study was the use of camera traps as a tool to study mammalian species around the world. This equipment has “really grown rapidly” over the past few decades, Burton said, so much so that it is used in many countries.

“It generates very good evidence on species that may otherwise be difficult to study. They can be very secret or difficult to see, difficult to document. We use them a lot in our own research, these camera traps, and we knew a lot of other researchers were using them as well,” Burton said.

While using protected areas offers many conservation benefits, there are some challenges, Burton highlighting two in particular. One is the potential opportunity cost, as designating land for conservation protection sometimes means losing the economic opportunities associated with it.

The secondary concern is what the UBC ecologist calls “paper parks,” where they may be designated as protected areas under policy, but they are not enforced.

Caribou/Cole Burton/UBC Faculty of Forestry
A caribou photographed near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Cole Burton/UBC Faculty of Forestry)

“There may not be enough funds allocated to the parks to actually improve the situation of the animals there,” Burton said. “In fact, going out there and measuring how species are doing in these parks is a very important part of understanding whether they’re working or not.”


The project was quite large, involving a large group of collaborators and co-authors, including other UBC graduate students, Burton noted. Each person operates the cameras in the field, sometimes at several sites, and combs through the images.

“Once they went through the images, they shared with us the results and the information about the species detected and the number of times they were detected,” Burton said.

leopard/Aisha Uduman/UBC Faculty of Forestry
A leopard photographed near Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. (Aisha Uduman/UBC Faculty of Forestry).

Chen, the study’s first author, noted that the investigation began around the same time he began working on his doctorate in around 2018. He collected the data for nearly three years, with the results now being reviewed, drawing on two international wildlife camera databases for his analysis.

In one Press release, Chen said it was the largest number of wildlife cameras ever analyzed in a single study.

“Using this methodology, we can provide more general evidence on a global scale showing that (protected) parks work for mammals. (That was) also a big motivation for this study,” Chen said.


Worldwide, the coverage of terrestrial protected areas has increased from 14.1% to 15.3% over the past decade, according to in the study. This upward trend is expected to continue within the framework of international political commitments in favor of conservation.

Asian Elephant/Aisha Uduman/UBC Faculty of Forestry
An Asian elephant filmed near Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. (Aisha Uduman/UBC Faculty of Forestry)

Burton, also lead author of the study, noted that nearly 200 countries have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), known informally as the Biodiversity Convention, a global agreement to better protect biodiversity on Earth.

“There have been big discussions around what is sometimes called 30 by 30, so 30% of the Earth by 2030, or these other kinds of goals that are being discussed for what we should work to improve the conservation of biodiversity around the planet,” Burton said.

“Did the recent additions work? Has the protected areas strategy worked? Our article proves that yes, for mammals, it helps to protect diversity. It is a strategy that we must continue to build on and push forward.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Robyn D. Appleton/UBC Faculty of Forestry.

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