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Spatial resilience of protected areas

The protected areas programme focuses on understanding influences on the long-term sustainability of protected areas in South Africa, the contributions of protected areas to the national biodiversity estate, and the ways in which they function as both members and creators of socioeconomic networks. With Prof. Graeme Cumming’s departure from the Fitz, this programme is winding down.

Protected areas are one of society's preferred strategies for achieving conservation goals. Given their widely assumed importance for conservation, and the many case studies that have focused on individual reserves, there has been surprisingly little comparative work on protected areas. For instance, little is known about the long-term dynamics of most protected areas; patterns in their creation and collapse are poorly understood; and their overall contributions to biodiversity conservation, particularly within the private sector, remain unclear.

People create and manage protected areas in order to provide ecosystem goods and services (whether aesthetic, cultural or economic) to society. Social goals influence management activities; and in turn, management successes or failures influence both ecosystem service provision and societal attitudes. For example, demand for game viewing drives the stocking of large animals in small southern African protected areas; die-offs of elephants in times of drought have resulted in the creation of artificial watering points in many protected areas, with negative impacts (via elephant activities) on baobab trees and other ecosystem components; and societal values and preferences, such as a dislike of fire and burned areas, may influence supposedly scientific ecological management plans. Protected areas are thus best described as linked social-ecological systems, rather than the pristine fortresses of popular belief.

Protected area managers interact with one another in terms of exchanging information, resources, or even wildlife, thereby forming a protected area network. Ecological theory suggests that intermediate connectivity between protected areas will increase their resilience by facilitating dispersal, recolonisation and genetic mixing. In a similar manner, socioeconomic interactions between managers should enhance the spread of effective management strategies and the sharing of scarce resources.

In recent times, South Africa has seen the rise of an intriguing phenomenon: protected areas on private land. Such private reserves make up a significant portion of the country’s conservation estate. Additionally, private communities are being awarded ownership over land in many erstwhile state-owned protected areas as part of the country’s restitution programme. Thus, it is important to understand the dynamics and functioning of privately-owned protected areas; their rise and fall, their overall contributions to the national biodiversity estate and their contribution to the sustainability and resilience of our protected area network.

Private protected areas, unlike public reserves, receive minimal institutional funding and are therefore dependent on private funds and/or ecotourism, hunting and game breeding enterprises to generate the income necessary for their persistence. Little is known about the economic objectives of private reserves or how these objectives influence reserve management (e.g. the types of business models employed and their impact on species stocking rates, tourist number management etc.). By quantifying and modelling the interactions between economic incentives and ecological management, we can explore the implications for private protected area resilience.

Can we rely on private nature reserves to support biodiversity conservation over the next 50-100 years? Can we predict where they will be successful and where they fail? How do they contribute to both social and ecological elements of conservation goals and strategies? And how resilient will they be, in an uncertain future, to the winds of social, economic, and ecological change?

The answers to these questions depend heavily on spatial patterns and relationships: where reserves occur along biophysical and socio-economic gradients, how their location relates to infrastructure, and how – or whether – membership in networks of such things as animal exchanges, transactions, and information processing influences their long-term viability. We have adopted a comparative, spatially explicit, and network-based approach to analyse and understand the dynamics that drive pattern-process relationships relating to private protected areas.


  • This programme has received a considerable amount of external funding support: a Complexity Scholar award to Graeme Cumming from the James S. McDonnell Foundation in 2012, an NRF Competitive Programme for Rated Researchers grant in 2013, and an NRF Blue Skies grant in 2015. These external funds have helped it to be highly productive.
  • The group published 15 peer-reviewed journal articles on protected areas over the reporting period.
  • Julia Baum completed her PhD on the socioeconomic interactions between private protected areas and the relevance of location and network membership for protected area resilience. Her work has been published in Biological Conservation and a second paper has been provisionally accepted by Ecology and Economics.
  • Hayley Clements completed her PhD on the conservation and economic objectives and long-term sustainability of private protected areas. She has published or in press papers from her thesis in Biological Conservation, Ecology and Society, Conservation Biology and Ecosystem Services.
  • 2014 CB MSc student Jenna Bowker, supervised by Graeme Cumming and Alta de Vos, published her research on forest cover change in African protected areas in Conservation Biology.
  • CB MSc student Jessleena Suri published her MSc CB thesis on the conservation value of the Liesbeek River, advised by Pippin Anderson, Eleonore Hellard, and Graeme Cumming, in Landsape and Urban Planning.
  • Former visiting Fox scholar and lab manager Judith Ament led an analysis of data from our extensive survey on ‘Why people visit South African protected areas’; this was published in Conservation Letters. She also led a paper on land cover change outside protected areas, published in Conservation Biology.
  • Graeme Cumming published a review of structure-function relationships, linking networks and hierarchies, in the prestigious journal TREE (Trends in Ecology and Evolution) and synthesis articles on spatial resilience and protected areas in Ecosystems and Anthropocene.

Key co-sponsors

James S. MacDonnell Foundation’s Complex Systems Program; NRF; SANParks; numerous private nature reserve owners and managers.

Research team

Prof. Graeme Cumming (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. David Cumming (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Duan Biggs (Australian National University)
Dr Alta de Vos (Rhodes University)
Marna Herbst (SANParks)
Dr Kristi Maciejewski (U. Stellenbosch)
Zaccheus Mahlangu (ZWA)
Dr Colleen Seymour (SANBI)
Prof. Jane Southworth (U. Florida)
Prof. Craig Allan (U. Nebraska)
Prof. Andreas Buerkert (U. Kassel)
Dr Ellen Hoffman (U. Kassel)
Prof. Teja Tscharntke (U. Gottingen)
Prof. Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel (U. Gottingen)

Students: Julia Baum (PhD, UCT), Hayley Clements (PhD, UCT), Jessleena Suri (CB MSc, UCT)

Research Assistants: Judith Ament, Dominic Henry, Kim Zoeller