Remote sensing research to inform the ecology and conservation of protected areas worldwide

Harini Nagendra

Azim Premji University, Bangalore, Karnataka, India


In the December issue of Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, we have a special section dedicated to research on protected areas. This section consists of three excellent papers located in varied geographic contexts from West Africa to South America and Canada. They also cover a range of important topics relevant to protected area conservation.

Wildlife does not know or acknowledge national boundaries. Many prominent wildlife matrices and species migration corridors cut across multiple countries. Thus transboundary conservation has become an increasing focus of global conservation efforts. There has been an almost four-fold increase in the number of transboundary protected areas in recent decades – from just 59 in the 1980s, to 227 in 2007. Yet given the diversity of national political, cultural, demographic and economic environments, there can be major differences in ecological and conservation outcomes between different countries. This has rarely been examined, but satellite remote sensing provides a particularly suitable approach to compare conservation effectiveness between different countries using conterminous datasets.

Schulte to Bühne et al. (2017) examined land cover change between 2000-2006-2013 in the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) transboundary complex in West Africa. Covering an area of 50,000 km2, the park and its buffer zones stretch across areas of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. The area is important for human settlements, with over 1 million people located close to the park, as well as for wildlife – the WAP complex contains over half of the West African lion population, for instance. Through analysis of Landsat 7 and 8 data, Schulte to Bühne et al. (2017) found that the park had been effective in protecting “natural” vegetation, in contrast to the surrounding area where there was a visible expansion of agriculture. Within the WAP complex, patches with a higher level of protection were better conserved.

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Cropland distribution across the WAP transboundary protected area complex in West Africa in 2013 (adapted from Schulte to Bühne et al. 2017).

Between 2006-2013, Burkina Faso had the highest rates of agricultural expansion, despite having a lower rural population growth rate compared to Niger. This is an interesting finding, suggesting that there are differences in the drivers of agricultural expansion between these countries that are not directly related to rural demographics alone, which require further research. Possibly the first study to evaluate the ecological outcomes of a transboundary protected area using an independent dataset, this paper demonstrates the importance of understanding the differences in conservation outcomes – and associated drivers of change – between different countries, for critically endangered wide-ranging wildlife species such as the West African lion.

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Wildlife and their habitats in the WAP protected area complex (photos by Vincent Lapeyre).

Climate change is another global game changer that may require us to rethink the approach of conservation focused on protected areas, as species adapt and migrate in accordance with altered climatic conditions. Dieguez and Paruelo (2017) use NDVI data from AVHRR satellites to examine changes in phenology between 1982-2012, using a large dataset encompassing 201 protected areas in South America, from 61 ecoregions, 9 biomes and 13 countries, representing some of the wettest and driest parts of the world. The dominant pattern was of increased seasonality and higher vegetation productivity in all sites with the exception of some temperate and semi-arid regions, where increased temperature and decrease in rainfall may be limiting primary productivity. This research helps us understand how different ecosystems will respond to climate change. Within protected areas, human influence is limited and hence easier to disentangle from climatic impacts – the authors use this effectively in their large-n study of parks and climate variability.


201 protected areas across South America showing significant positive (blue), non-significant (grey) and significant negative (red) trends in primary productivity across 1981-2012 (adapted from Dieguez & Paruelo 2017).

Bowers et al. examine climate change in a different context, that of Canada’s boreal forests, which represent one of the world’s largest, relatively intact natural habitats. Future vegetation productivity was modelled using historical productivity records from the AVHRR satellite related to historical climate data, and predicted under different future climate scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – least extreme, business as usual, and most extreme change. For these models, environmental domains were computed, as were distributions for 16 at-risk species that included the wolf, whooping crane and peregrine falcon, among others. Overall, protected area networks that appear well designed for current climate conditions will probably not work well in future climate scenarios. Additional reserves will be required to meet conservation needs, which will substantially increase costs and complexities of conservation planning. Nevertheless, the realities of ongoing and future climate change imply the need for such data-driven interdisciplinary conservation planning, combining remote sensing, GIS, biodiversity modelling and climate change modelling, in order to meet long-term conservation goals.



Areas across the Canadian boreal forest representing a collection of sites selected under a range of forecasted climate/productivity conditions (Figure 5 in Powers et al. 2017).

Taken together, these papers constitute innovative research on protected area conservation using cutting-edge analytical tools coupled with remote sensing techniques. They demonstrate productive avenues for further research on emerging issues that cover transboundary conservation, ecosystem-specific responses to changing climate, and protected area planning under diverse climate-change scenarios. Since its inception three years ago, Remote Sensing for Ecology and Conservation has remained committed to the important task of “providing a platform where people can publish excellent science important to the ecology and conservation of biodiversity.”  This dedicated section on protected areas is a further step in this direction. We hope these papers will stimulate the submission of further cutting-edge research in these areas.

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