Measuring the performance of protected areas

The School of Biological Sciences at Monash University is a world leader in ecological research. The school’s strategic plan is focused on delivering the vision of understanding biological responses to changing environments: the Ecology of Change. 

Program Area:
Project Dates:
April - December 2016
Daintree National Park


Protected areas are the primary tool through which the global community responds to the loss of biodiversity. Over 140 nations have committed to growing their protected area networks to 17% of their land area under the Convention on Biological Diversity, with progress measured according to the total area protected.

Considering the importance placed on protected areas for halting biodiversity loss, the current approach to tracking progress towards this goal is woefully inadequate. Research has revealed that not all protected areas are equally effective at conserving biodiversity, and is providing evidence for the attributes of successful protected areas.

This research now provides a critical opportunity to develop more meaningful measures of progress in building protected areas.


Australia’s National Reserve System provides an excellent case study with which to evaluate progress in building a robust protected area network, having more than doubled the area protected over the past 20 years. The aim of this project was to develop a multidimensional approach to measure the performance of protected areas over time. By utilising existing data more meaningfully we can maximize the value and impact of protected areas for conservation.  


Through the Ian Potter Science Grant, Dr Carly Cook has been able to develop the most detailed data on change in the protected area network over time for any country.

By identifying and validating changes in Australian protected areas, this project has revealed that tracking total area protected alone has obscured over 1,500 occasions where the protections for these areas have been downgraded to allow higher impact activities, or removed altogether.

Evaluating the attributes of the areas added has raised concerns about the degree to which new areas have strengthened the network. Most of the protected areas added were very small (less than 1 km2) and the majority of the area added was very large protected areas that allow resource extraction.


This project represents the first detailed assessment of change in protected areas for a developed country, and the most comprehensive assessment (including both gains and losses) ever conducted. This has yielded important insights into the vulnerability of protected areas and the important factors driving this vulnerability. It also provide clear evidence for why the current metrics that measure progress in protected areas are wholly inadequate and need revision.

The findings of this research were recently showcased at the World Conservation Congress, gaining international recognition. These findings are also being used by governments around Australia to improve the quality of the data collected in protected areas. Dr Cook recently co-organised a follow-up workshop on  Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia. The title of the workshop was: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Implications of PADDD for Conservation Science and Policy. The workshop discussed what the priorities are for advancing science and policy for PADDD, but also how we can better recognise when and where it is happening.  

Long term we hope to work with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre to improve the quality and value of global data on protected areas, and the indicators used to measure progress implementing our primary tool for protecting biodiversity. 

Dr Carly Cook, researcher in the School of Biological Sciences, Monash University and founding member of the Centre for Evidence Informed Policy and Practice

'This comprehensive study, provides a crucial insight into the changes occurring in the Australian protected area network over the past 17 years. While protected areas in Australia have more than doubled over this period, this study found that over 30% of these areas have been downgraded at the same time, reducing their environmental impact. The findings and learnings from this research provide important direction for conservation efforts both within Australia and overseas.

Accordingly ,the Foundation supported Dr Cook with a travel grant (in addition to this Science grant) to enable her to present this research at the World Conservation Congress in 2017. We have been very impressed with Dr Cook and look forward to watching how this research further develops.'

Nicole Bortone, Science Program Manager


Sign up to e-Newsletter


Support Australia's most innovative projects through a donation to The Ian Potter Foundation. Your donation will support projects that address areas of particular need or opportunity, managed by credible organisations with solid track records in their particular fields.

Hey, it seems you"re using a browser that is a little past its time and our website might not be able to perform as it should. If you’d like to have the best experience on our website, you can easily find out about updating your browser here

dismiss this message