Protected areas or natural parks are locations which receive protection because of their recognised natural, ecological and/or cultural values. There are several kinds of protected areas, which vary by level of protection depending on the enabling laws of each country or the regulations of the international organisations involved. The term "protected area" also includes Marine Protected Areas, the boundaries of which will include some area of ocean. There are over 161,000 protected areas in the world (as of October 2010) with more added daily, representing between 10 and 15 percent of the world's land surface area. By contrast, only 1.17% of the world's oceans is included in the world's ~6,800 Marine Protected Areas.
Protected areas are essential for biodiversity conservation. They are the cornerstones of virtually all national and international conservation strategies. They are areas set aside to maintain functioning natural ecosystems, to act as refuges for species and to maintain ecological processes that cannot survive in most intensely managed landscapes and seascapes. Protected areas act as benchmarks against which we understand human interactions with the natural world. Today they are often the only hope we have of stopping many threatened or endangered species from becoming extinct.
Generally, protected areas are understood to be those in which human occupation or at least the exploitation of resources is limited. The definition that has been widely accepted across regional and global frameworks has been provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its categorisation guidelines for protected areas. The definition is as follows:
"A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values."
 Protection of natural resources
Protected areas are designated with the objective of conserving biodiversity and providing an indicator for that conservation's progress, but the extent to which they defend resources and ecosystem dynamics from degradation are slightly more complex. Protected areas will usually encompass several other zones that have been deemed important for particular conservation uses, such as Important Bird Areas (IBA) and Endemic Bird Areas (EBA), Centres of Plant Diversity (CBD), Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA), Alliance for Zero Extinction Sites (AZE) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) among others. Likewise, a protected area or an entire network of protected areas may lie within a larger geographic zone that is recognised as a terrestrial or marine ecoregions (see, Global 200), or a crisis ecoregions for example.
Subsequently, the range of natural resources that any one protected area may guard is vast. Many will be allocated primarily for species conservation whether it be flora or fauna or the relationship between them, but protected areas are similarly important for conserving sites of cultural or indigenous importance, and considerable reserves of natural resources, such as;
- Carbon Stocks: Carbon emissions from deforestation account for an estimated 20% of global carbon emissions, so in protecting the worlds carbon stocks greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and longterm land cover change is prevented, which is an effective strategy in the struggle against global warming. Of all global terrestrial carbon stock, 15.2% is contained within protected areas. Protected areas in South America hold 27% of the world's carbon stock, which is the highest percentage of any country in both absolute terms and as a proportion of the total stock.
- Rainforests: 18.8% of the world's forest is covered by protected areas and sixteen of the twenty forest types have 10% or more protected area coverage. Of the 670 ecoregions with forest cover, 54% have 10% or more of their forest cover protected under IUCN Categories I – VI.
- Mountains: Nationally designated protected areas cover 14.3% of the world’s mountain areas, and these mountainous protected areas made up 32.5% of the world’s total terrestrial protected area coverage in 2009. Mountain protected area coverage has increased globally by 21% since 1990 and out of the 198 countries with mountain areas, 43.9% still have less than 10% of their mountain areas protected.
Annual updates on each of these analyses are made in order to make comparisons to the Millenium Development Goals and several other fields of analysis are expected to be introduced in the monitoring of protected areas management effectiveness, such as freshwater and marine or coastal studies which are currently underway, and islands and drylands which are currently in planning.
 IUCN Protected Area Management Categories
Through its World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), IUCN have developed six Protected Area Management Categories that define protected areas according to their management objectives which are internationally recognised by various national governments and the United Nations. The categories provide international standards for defining protected areas and encourage conservation planning according to their management aims.
Protected areas are cultural artifacts and their story is entwined with that of human civilization. Protecting places and resources is by no means a modern concept, whether it be indigenous communities guarding sacred sites or the convention of European hunting reserves. Over 2000 years ago, royal decrees in India protected certain areas. In Europe, rich and powerful people protected hunting grounds for a thousand years. Moreover, the idea of protection of special places is universal: for example, it occurs among the communities in the Pacific (“tapu” areas) and in parts of Africa (sacred groves). However, the modern protected areas movement had nineteenth century origins in North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Other countries were quick to follow suit. While the idea of protected areas spread around the world in the twentieth century, the driving force was different in different regions. Thus, in North America, protected areas were about safeguarding dramatic and sublime scenery; in Africa, the concern was with game parks; in Europe, landscape protection was more common.
Initially, protected areas were recognised on a national scale, differing from country to country until 1933, when an effort to reach an international consensus on the standards and terminology of protected areas took place at the International Conference for the Protection of Fauna and Flora in London. At the 1962 First World Conference on National Parks in Seattle the effect the Industrial Revolution had had on the world's natural environment was acknowledged and the need to preserve it for future generations was established.
Since then, it has been an international commitment on behalf of both governments and non-government organisations to maintain the networks that hold regular revisions for the succinct categorisations that have been developed to regulate and record protected areas. In 1972, the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment endorsed the protection of representative examples of all major ecosystem types as a fundamental requirement of national conservation programmes. This has become a core principle of conservation biology and has remained so in recent resolutions - including the World Charter for Nature in 1982, the Rio Declaration at the Earth Summit in 1992, and the Johannesburg Declaration 2002.
Recently, the importance of protected areas has been brought to the fore at the threat of human-induced global warming and the understanding of the necessity to consume natural resources in a sustainable manner. The spectrum of benefits and values of protected areas is recognised not only ecologically, but culturally through further development in the arena of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). International programmes for the protection of representative ecosystems remain relatively progressive (considering the environmental challenges of globalisation with respect to terrestrial environments), with less advances in marine and freshwater biomes.
How to manage areas protected for conservation brings up a range of challenges - whether it be regarding the local population, specific ecosystems or the design of the reserve itself - and because of the many unpredicatable elements in ecology issues, each protected area requires a case-specific set of guidelines.
Enforcing protected area boundaries is a costly and labour-heavy endeavour, particularly if the allocation of a new protected region places new restrictions on the use of resources by the native people which may lead to their subsequent displacement. This has troubled relationships between conservationists and rural communities in many protected regions and is often why many Wildlife Reserves and National Parks face the human threat of poaching for the illegal bushmeat or trophy trades which is resorted to as an alternative form of substinence.
There is increasing and justifiable pressure to take proper account of human needs when setting up protected areas and these sometimes have to be “traded off” against conservation needs. Whereas in the past governments often made decisions about protected areas and informed local people afterwards, today the emphasis is shifting towards greater discussions with stakeholders and joint decisions about how such lands should be set aside and managed. Such negotiations are never easy but usually produce stronger and longer-lasting results for both conservation and people.
In some countries, protected areas can be assigned without the infrastructure and networking needed to substitute consumable resources and subtantiatively protect the area from development or misuse. The soliciting of protected areas may require regulation to the level of meeting demands for food, feed, livestock and fuel, and the legal enforcement of not only the protected area itself but also 'buffer zones' surrounding it, which may help to resist destabilisation.
One of the main concerns regarding protected areas on land and sea is their effectiveness at preventing the ongoing loss of biodiversity. There are multiple case studies indicating the positive effects of protected areas on terrestrial and marine species. However, those cases do not represent the majority of protected areas. Several limitations that may preclude their success include: their small size and large isolation to each other (both of these factors influence the maintenance of species), their limited role at preventing the large plethora of factors affecting biodiversity (e.g. climate change, invasive species, pollution), their large cost and their increasing conflict with human demands for nature's goods and services. 
 See also
- Marine Protected Area
- IUCN Protected Area Management Categories
- World Database on Protected Areas
- World Commission on Protected Areas
- Indigenous and Community Conserved Area
- Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia
- Biodiversity Hotspots
- Last of the Wild
- Private protected area
- List of largest protected areas in the world
- Conservation refugee
- Centres of Plant Diversity
- Zakaznik (type of protected area)
- Protected Planet
- Soutullo, A. 2010. Extent of the Global Network of Terrestrial Protected Areas. Conservation Biology 24(2):362-363. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01465.x/abstract
- United Nations MDG Report 2010
- Mora C, Sale P (2011). "Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need to move beyond protected areas: A review of the technical and practical shortcoming of protected areas on land and sea" (PDF). Marine Ecology Progress Series 434: 251–266.
- IUCN (2010) Global Ocean Protection: Present Status and Future Possibilities
- Dudley, N. (ed.) Guidelines for Appling Protected Areas Management Categories (IUCN: Switzerland, 2008)
- Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, India
- UNEP-WCMC About Protected Areas, Dudley, N. (ed.) Guidelines for Appling Protected Areas Management Categories (IUCN: Switzerland, 2008) p.8-9
- A-Z of Areas of Biodiversity Importance
- Campbell, A., Miles. L., Lysenko, I., Hughes, A., Gibbs, H. Carbon Storage in Protected Areas: Technical Report (UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 2008)
- Coad L., Burgess, N.D., Bomhard, B., and Besancon, C. Progress on the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2010 and 2012 Targets for Protected Area Coverage “Looking to the Future of the CBD Programme of Work on Protected Areas” (Cambridge: UNEP-WCMC, 2009)
- Rodríguez-Rodríguez, D., Bomhard, B., Fitzgerald, C. & Blyth, S. How much of the world’s mountain area is protected? (Cambridge, UNEP-WCMC, 2009)
- Bomhard, B., Butchart, S., Tracking Progress Towards the CBD’s Targets for Protected Area Coverage and Management Effectiveness (UNEP-WCMC & BirdLife International, 2010)
- WCPA Categories System for Protected Areas Task Force
- Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories, Published October, 2008
- Mongolia Sacred Mountains: Bogd Khan, Burkhan Khaldun, Otgon Tenger
- Yellowstone National Park, United States
- Phillips, A. A Short History of the International System of Protected Area Management Categories (WCPA Task Force on Protected Area Categories, 2007)
- IUCN Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories, Published 2 October 2008, p. 3-4
- The World's Protected Areas, Published January 2008
- Schweizerischer National Park, Switzerland
- for Conservation: A Global Overview, Dan Brockington and Jim Igoe. Accessed: 18 April 2011
- BBC News: A Battle for DR Congo's Wildlife
- UNEP-WCMC About Protected Areas, Dudley, N. (ed.) Guidelines for Appling Protected Areas Management Categories (IUCN: Switzerland, 2008) p.12
- Middle East's Investments in African Farmlands Rooted in Food Security Fears
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Protected areas|
- World Database on Protected Areas
- United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center, Protected Areas Programme
- IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas
- IUCN Global Protected Area Programme
- 2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership Indicator Factsheet: Management Effectiveness of Protected Areas
- A-Z of Areas of Biodiversity Importance
- Brazilian Amazon Protected areas - Instituto Socioambiental