UN turns to cyber-citizens to protect global wildlife

As the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) announces more and more depressing, but hardly surprising, news about the state of global plant and animal life, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has launched an online database of protected areas around the world. These protected areas are deemed critical to the survival of global environments and wildlife but are often poorly regulated or monitored.

In an effort to keep up with the social networking phenomenon, the open system is also an effort to keep up with what is happening in these areas. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), a joint initiative between IUCN and UNEP-WCMC ,was started 30 years ago as a basic global list of national parks, but is based on data from governments and other authorities. However with an estimated 150,000 global sites the data on them and how effectively they are protected is often scanty.

Without directly saying it, the project is hoping to get citizens around the world to comment on how effectively these sites are being managed by nations, offer suggestions and, probably provide a forum for criticism.

The more publicised side is that it provides a multi-lingual opportunity to plan holidays and gain a greater understanding of widlife. UNEP hopes it will also increase the number of people visiting such sites, generating income to help with their upkeep.

Called Protectedplanet.net it links into and from existing web-based resources, such as Google maps, Wikipedia and the Google-owned photo-sharing site Panoramio.

In a press statement UNEP said:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has joined forces with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to create protectedplanet.net – an interactive, social media-based website that provides in-depth information on both the leading lights and hidden gems of the conservation world.

Using the latest satellite images, users can pinpoint individual protected areas – such as national parks or marine reserves – and zoom in for information on endangered species, native plant life or types of terrain.

Protected Planet also offers visitors the opportunity to upload photographs of their trips to protected areas, write travelogues of what they saw and experienced for Wikipedia and recommend places of interest nearby—information that can be shared through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

This in turn might inspire others to make the journey, thus bringing much needed income to communities in often poor and sometimes remote areas of the globe.

The Ecotourism industry is growing fast and currently captures $77 billion of the global tourism market. As concern about global warming increases, more tourists than ever are opting for eco-friendly holidays, including visits to protected areas. According to Travel Weekly magazine, sustainable tourism could grow to 25 percent of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately $473 billion a year.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “National parks and protected areas represent one key and successful response to conserving and managing this planet’s nature-based assets. And in a way that can generate revenues and livelihoods for local communities. Indeed by some estimates, $1-$2 billion of global tourism is linked to the world’s network of around 150,000 protected sites”.

“But the benefits of well-managed tourism are currently uneven with some parks popular magnets for tourists and others hidden gems that are relatively unknown. Protected Planet has the potential to change this by bringing the world’s protected areas into a living room near you. So whether you are a government official or a scientist or a citizen looking for a holiday of a lifetime, click on www.protectedplanet.net for a new adventure,” he added.

However there are likely to be critical comments of the project. Many of the sponsors are global oil companies.

On top of that future political rows are likely. Taiwan, for example, is described as a ‘province’ of China. China’s dislike of Google’s satellite system, Google Earth, will limit its use there and Wikipedia descriptions and comments of Chinese protected areas (on a quick investigation) are virtually non-existent, as they are for many of the Asian areas. Indeed this fact is one reason why the system has been created.

Check the system out and start filling in the blanks, it offers a chance to monitor how our global protected habitats are managed whether governments like it or not.