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National parks: Serving humanity’s well-being as much as nature’s

Mongabay – Jeremy Hance

  • A new study finds that living near a protected area in the developing world decreases poverty and increases childhood health.
  • Parks with tourism or multi-use were the best at delivering benefits to local populations.
  • There is an untold part of this story: conflict with wildlife was not incorporated into the study.

This post is part of Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild, a monthly column by Jeremy Hance, one of Mongabay’s original staff writers.

Imagine, for a moment, a world without national parks. Yellowstone National Park is just a combo of cattle ranchers and gated communities for rich people who like the empty views. The wild American bison is extinct and no wolves wander anywhere near the lower 48. Manú National Park, in the Peruvian Amazon, was logged out decades ago — and the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area are all dead. The migration across the Serengeti was slowly crushed by roads, trains, sprawl, agriculture and hunting; by the 1980s just a few wildebeest limped through churned-up plains. The Serengeti’s last lion died before the new millennium. Jim Corbett National Park in India is today just fields of marginal farming: the tigers that were once there are long gone — in fact, tigers in this counterfactual universe went totally extinct in the 1990s from the wild. But, hey, they still perform in circuses!

Without national parks, and by extension all varieties of protected areas, our planet would be even hotter than it is and we would have lost thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of species still found on our Earth today. Protected areas remain our best tool against mass extinction and ecological degradation. They are also ridiculously beloved: a study in 2015 found that natural protected areas received 8 billion visits a year — greater than the total population of humans on Earth. The researchers estimate this could generate $600 billion dollars a year (even though globally nations only invest $10 billion a year into park management, which is pretty much woefully inadequate). According to the Protected Planet Report in 2018, 14.9 percent of global lands are protected, covering 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles) — nearly twice the size of China.

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