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IUCN Categories

An internationally recognized protected area category system


Protected areas are a fundamental part of global, national and sub-national conservation strategies that are supported and governed by a range of local and national institutions, NGOs and even individuals such as in the case of private protected areas. The definition of a protected area differs between countries, however the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2008), through consultation within IUCN members and IUCN-World Commission on Protected Areas, has developed the definition of “ A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values ”.1

Protected areas are designated by national governments based on the management objectives identified by them. They assess whether the site meets the IUCN’s definition, and document the characteristics and justification for protected area status. Based on this information, a management category is proposed and ideally a consultation is carried out with all stakeholders.1 The final decision is made by the government on the category of protected area. IUCN can advise on assignment and sometimes runs individual advisory missions to countries or even individual protected areas. The criteria for designation, management and business implications depend on a number of factors, but can largely be separated based on the management objective and governance type of the area, which are described below.


Supported by

Developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with support of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) and other international institutions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and assigned by national governments


Year of creation


Global in extent



Not applicable



Protected areas are established under a range of objectives, all of which broadly encompass the conservation of nature. The following objectives should or can apply to all protected area categories:1

• Conserve the composition, structure, function and evolutionary potential of biodiversity;
• Contribute to regional conservation strategies (as core reserves, buffer zones, corridors, steppingstones for migratory species etc.);
• Maintain diversity of landscape or habitat and of associated species and ecosystems;
• Be of sufficient size to ensure the integrity and long-term maintenance of the specified conservation targets or be capable of being increased to achieve this end;
• Maintain the values for which it was assigned in perpetuity;
• Be operating under the guidance of a management plan, and a monitoring and evaluation programme that supports adaptive management;
• Possess a clear and equitable governance system.

IUCN has developed a system of categorising protected areas according to the underlying management objectives, which could be implemented by different management approaches. These categories are recognised by international bodies such as the United Nations and by many national governments and have become an important global standard for the planning, establishment and management of protected areas, and as such are increasingly being incorporated into government legislation. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas (Paragraph 4.3.7) request Parties to the Convention to use the IUCN System of Protected Areas Management Categories for reporting purpose. The categories are as follows1, and are described in further detail on separate factsheets:

Ia. Strict Nature Reserve
Ib Wilderness Area
II National Park (ecosystem protection; protection of cultural values)
III Natural Monument
IV Habitat/Species Management
V Protected Landscape/Seascape
VI Protected Area with sustainable use of natural resources

The overlap between these categories and other international designations is variable. For example, Ramsar sites and Natura 2000 sites can have any or no IUCN category. However, all World Heritage sites are protected areas under one overall management category. Biosphere reserves should have a highly protected core (category I–IV) and a sustainable management zone around (category V/VI or not a fully protected area). Broadly speaking, areas in categories I-IV are subject to more restricted management and use giving priority to biodiversity conservation, whereas those in categories V and VI are often under more flexible management regimes that allows multiple of their natural and cultural resources.

While not their intended purpose, these categories have been used in a limited way to prescribe specific policy instruments which impact on business. For example at the World Conservation Congress in 2000, it was recommended that ‘ IUCN Members prohibit by law, all exploration and extraction of mineral resources in protected areas corresponding to IUCN Protected Areas Management Categories I to IV ’. This approach has also been adopted by some companies in their corporate policies, such as Shell, which has a commitment to improve the way they operate in IUCN Category I-IV protected areas.

Governance types

Protected areas established according to any of the above management categories can be under the control and responsibility of a range of actors. Governance types describe the different means of management authority and responsibility that can exist for protected areas but they do not necessarily relate to ownership. These ‘ governance ’ types have been categorised by IUCN as the following:1

A. Governance by government. This includes federal, national or sub-national ministry or agencies in charge as well as government delegated management (e.g. to an NGO).
B. Shared governance (often termed co-management). This includes transboundary management between more than one government (see factsheet on transboundary protected areas (TBPAs), as well as collaborative and joint management that can take place between government and non-governmental actors.
C. Private governance. This includes areas declared and run by individual land-owners, non-profit organisations and for-profit organisations (see factsheet on private protected areas).
D. Governance by indigenous peoples and local communities. This includes indigenous peoples protected areas and territories and community conserved areas (see factsheet on Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs).


Business relevance:

Not applicable



  • Protected Planet is a tool for visualizing, mapping and contributing to information on protected areas. This includes information on the IUCN category where known. Protected Planet brings together spatial data, descriptive information and images from the World Database on Protected Areas, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), WikipediaTM, PanaramioTM, FlickrTM, and Google MapsTM.
  • The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for business provides a visualisation and GIS download tool for protected areas, including the IUCN category where known.


  1. Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp.
  2. Official IUCN website provides information on the protected areas categories system


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