Applying Lessons from Rainforest Protected Areas to MPA Management: Interview with Tom Struhsaker

MPA News

In a paper published in the May 2005 issue of the journal Biological Conservation, biologist Tom Struhsaker of Duke University (US) wrote that the most successful rainforest protected areas in Africa are those with a combination of characteristics, including public support, strong law enforcement, large size, and low human population densities nearby. His research, involving a survey of dozens of scientists and managers at 16 African parks and wildlife preserves, also concluded that investment in economic development around parks - such as for agriculture or ecotourism - does not necessarily correlate with park success in meeting conservation goals. In fact, he said, success in development programs can draw more people to a region and thereby increase stress on protected areas.

Although Struhsaker cautions that his study should not be viewed as definitive, he says its lessons may be applicable to other types of protected areas - including, potentially, MPAs. Below, MPA News talks with Struhsaker about the implications of his research for protected areas in general. His paper, "Conserving Africa's rain forests: problems in protected areas and possible solutions", was co-authored by Paul Struhsaker and Kirstin Siex (Biological Conservation, Vol. 123, Issue 1, pp. 45-54) and was supported by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, a program of Conservation International.

MPA News: In your paper, you suggest that the success of a protected area depends in part on the level of public support for that site. How can human attitudes and values be influenced to the benefit of protected areas?

Tom Struhsaker: This is one of the most difficult and important questions confronting the majority of protected areas (PAs) everywhere, and the answers will surely differ among cultures and over time. Many adhere to the idea that conservation can be bought. Our studies and numerous others indicate otherwise. Indeed, economic incentives can often assist in generating the initial interest in conservation but, ultimately, this is unlikely to succeed because (a) the majority of people always desire more and (b) populations continue to grow. More lucrative and destructive options usually prevail.

My view is that the most effective conservation happens when a significant segment of the neighboring human population practices an ethic that respects other species and the need for conserving intact ecosystems. Although our results did not show a strong correlation between conservation education and PA success, I continue to endorse the idea that conservation education in some form must be fundamental to changing behavior and attitudes. Clearly, there is need for detailed study of this issue.

MPA News: In successful PA management, how important is the relationship between park management and the community?

Tom Struhsaker: Certainly, good relations between park management and the neighboring community are vitally important. We emphasize, as well, that there are other ultimate factors that influence PA success, including human population growth and levels of consumption per capita.

While there may not be a single strategy for achieving good working relationships between PA management and the neighboring community, two of the African park wardens I interviewed and worked with offered some relevant advice. Their message was that you cannot and should not try to buy off the local community. Simply throwing money at them will not solve the problem nor win their cooperation. Instead these wardens felt that park authorities should strive to be good neighbors with the local communities. This involves frequent meetings with the local community to discuss each other's problems. The critical part of this relationship is that good neighbors help one another within the limits of their abilities and resources. In other words, it is a two-way, give-and-take process.

While this approach may not work in every culture, it certainly worked well for these two wardens and is a process worthy of consideration in general. One outstanding advantage of this approach is that it attempts to remain current and flexible, thereby allowing for changes in human demography, culture, economics, climate, and environment.

MPA News: What advice would you give a PA manager on how to make his or her protected area effective?

Tom Struhsaker: There is no single set of strategies that will work for all PAs nor for any given PA in perpetuity. Management practices must be flexible and adaptable according to local circumstances, including changes over time. Ecological monitoring programs are critical to evaluating the successes and failures of PA management practice and must be a fundamental and ongoing component of PA management. Without them, there is no objective way of determining the success of the PAs or of anticipating and understanding problems within the PA. In this regard, there must be full collaboration and understanding between managers and scientists.

For more information:

Thomas Struhsaker, Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, Box 90383, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0383, USA. Tel: +1 919 490 5352; E-mail: tomstruh [at]

BOX: Struhsaker et al. paper is online

The Struhsaker et al. paper "Conserving Africa's rain forests: problems in protected areas and possible solutions" is available in PDF format at