The designation of areas for the protection of biodiversity has a long history dating back over thousands of years. Here we provide an overview of the major time periods throughout history that have shaped the current landscape of areas of biodiversity importance, providing reference to key events and milestones when new types of biodiversity areas became recognised or established. This historical time line traces the early history of protected areas and their later international recognition as important conservation tools, and the more recent advances in the work of the conservation and academic community to prioritise areas based on their biodiversity value.
In many societies, there have been traditional practices of setting aside special areas for cultural and resource use purposes. The establishment of the earliest protected areas for wildlife and their habitat can be traced back to around 200 BC when hunting reserves existed under the ownership of, and for use by, Asian and European royalty. Gradually, they were opened up for public use and the ‘modern’ protected areas were created for ‘public use, resort and recreation’ and not explicitly for biodiversity conservation. One of the earliest and most well known protected areas globally is Yellowstone National Park, which was designated by US Congress law in 1872 as ‘a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’. However, from the early 1900s onwards, declines in the populations of some important species and their habitats, along with the development of ecological science, led to a broader understanding of the need for creating protected areas as a systematic approach to resource planning and management. In the first three decades of the 20th century, different categories of national parks were created in many countries mainly for protection of certain key species and habitats. Growth in the field of conservation and protected areas was hindered by the World Wars, but regained momentum during periods of peace, with IUCN being founded at the end of World War II.
While formal recognition of protected areas by national governments gained some momentum through the first half of the 20th Century despite the international conflict, the genesis of international recognition of protected areas as a tool for conservation started in the 1950s. Around this time significant growth in the designation of protected areas for conservation took place. In 1962, the First Conference on National Parks was held and the first UN List of Protected Areas that amalgamated all of the world’s protected areas was produced. The 1970s saw the establishment and adoption by countries worldwide of multilateral environment agreements that are still highly regarded today and protect some of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation. Some of the prominent ones are the World Heritage Convention, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, and the Birds Directive in the European Union. Another significant development during this period was finalisation of IUCN’s protected area management categories that categorises protected areas on the basis of their management objectives.
A global database on protected areas, the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), was set up in the 1980s and some important international frameworks for the protection of biodiversity were adopted that led to the establishment of regionally recognised areas such as Specially Protected Areas in the Mediterranean, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heritage Parks. This trend continued in the 1990s, with the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 that set targets for protected area coverage , and agreements in Europe took place to develop pan European networks of protected areas such as the Natura 2000 series. During this decade, there was also increasing recognition of the long history of traditional systems of management by local and indigenous communities and their importance for biodiversity conversation. This recognition was marked in 2003 by the Vth World Park Congress in 2003 that defined and highlighted the importance of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas and Sacred Natural Sites.
In the 1980s there was the start of a new focus to assess and prioritise areas for conservation that lay beyond protected area systems, based on biodiversity values such as threat status of species or habitats, endemism, species richness etc. These approaches are wide ranging and many of the first schemes are those that aim to direct conservation effort and investment to particular regions of the world such as Biodiversity Hotspots, Megadiverse Countries and Centres of Plant Diversity. This approach has continued into recent years with the identification of Last of the Wild sites, High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas and Crisis Ecoregions during the last decade. Other approaches work to identify site-scale areas of biodiversity importance in order to encourage protection and management of those particular sites. One of the first of schemes was the identification of Important Bird Areas in the 1980s, and this approach gained momentum in recent history due to the increasing threats of extinction, with the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas, Important Plant Areas and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites.