Many African IBAs, including those holding threatened birds, have no legal recognition or protection

Dwarf Olive Ibis, © Nic Borrow/

In 2004 Africa had 1,230 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), of which only 57% benefited from some degree of formal protection. This left 525 IBAs and thereby 44 globally threatened birds entirely unprotected. As of 2016, there are 1,247 African IBAs, 61.6% of which overlap with protected areas. While this is an improvement, recent studies observing subsets of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots, IBAs, and protected areas reveal that protected area networks do little to protect threatened bird species, particularly as coverage decreases for Critically Endangered species.

With biodiversity facing a plethora of threats, protected areas are seen as an essential conservation strategy. Despite species extinction risk being lower for sites with a larger proportion holding protected status (Butchart et al. 2012), many IBAs across Africa still lack formal protection. In 2004, Africa had a total of 1,230 IBAs, only 57% of which had overlap with a protected area. In principle at least, they were therefore partly or wholly covered by conservation management provisions that aim to protect the sites’ natural values and prevent unsustainable uses such as large-scale deforestation, over-hunting, and over-fishing. As of 2016, there are 1,247 IBAs across Africa covering over 2.1 million km2 (Fishpool and Evans 2001). These IBAs have a 61.6% overlap with the country’s protected areas, which cover 2.2 million km2 (representing 7% of Africa; UNEP-WCMC 2007). While this is an improvement from 2004, 38.4% of IBAs in Africa have no such protection or recognition of their natural values. This leaves 44 globally threatened birds—20% of the total number in Africa—lacking protection at any of the sites where they regularly occur. Capturing the unprotected globally threatened birds within Africa’s protected-area networks is a high conservation priority. Globally, protected areas cover an average of 12.9 – 13.4% (Coad et al. 2010), indicating that African countries need to increase their efforts in protecting threatened species. Furthermore, unprotected sections of African IBAs have been observed to be disproportionately important to threatened birds compared to sections overlapped by a protected area (Beresford et al. 2010).

The degree to which the protected area network covers IBAs is used to measure progress in halting biodiversity loss (Butchart et al. 2010). Only 14% of the extent of potentially suitable habitat (ESH; a subset of extent of occurrence) of 144 globally threatened terrestrial African birds falls within protected areas. Troublingly, a negligible 0.5% of Critically Endangered species’ ESH is covered by protected areas (Beresford et al. 2010). In comparison, 30% of ESH (29% for Critically Endangered species) is covered by 866 observed IBAs. Thirty-one species’ ESH is better covered by protected areas than IBAs, while 100 species’ ESH was better covered by IBAs than protected areas. Despite IBAs clearly overlapping the range of threatened species better, the relatively low 30% overlap highlights the potential need to revise IBAs as these can heavily influence the location of protected areas. Furthermore, under scenarios such as climate change, the location of IBAs and the adequacy of protected areas is likely to shift, therefore projections of future species distributions are an important resource.

While protected areas are designated for a number of reasons beyond biodiversity conservation, it is worrying to note that protected area coverage decreases as IUCN Red List category increases, especially given the relatively high (61.6%) overlap between protected areas and IBAs.


Beresford, A. E., Buchanan, G. M., Donald, P. F., Butchart, S. H. M., Fishpool, L. D. C., and Rondinini, C. (2011). Poor overlap between the distribution of protected areas and globally threatened birds in Africa. Animal Conservation, 14(2), 99-107.

Butchart, S. H. M., Walpole, M., Collen, B., van Strien, A., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Almond, R. E. E., Baillie, J. E. M., Bomhard, B., Brown, C., Bruno, J., Carpenter, K. E., Carr, G. M., Chanson, J., Chenery, A. M., Csirke, J., Davidson, N. C., Dentener, F., Foster, M., Galli, A., Galloway, J. N., Genovesi, P., Gregory, R. D., Hockings, M., Kapos, V., Lamarque, J-F., Leverington, F., Loh, J., McGeoch, M. A., McRae, L., Minasyan, A., Morcillo, M. H., Oldfield, T. E. E., Pauly, D., Quader, S., Revenga, C., Sauer, J. R., Skolnik, B., Spear, D., Stanwell-Smith, D., Stuart, S. N., Symes, A., Tierney, M., Tyrrell, T. D., Vié, J. C. and Watson, R. (2010). Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164–1168.

Coad, L., Burgess, N. D., Loucks, C., Fish, L., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Duarte, L., and Besançon, C. (2010). Reply to Jenkins and Joppa – expansion of the global terrestrial protected area system. Biol. Conserv. 143, 5–6.

Fishpool, L. D. C., and Evans, M. I. (2001). Important Bird Areas in Africa and associated islands: priority sites for conservation. Newbury/Cambridge: Pisces Publications/BirdLife International.

UNEP-WCMC (2007). World Database on Protected Areas. Available at

Compiled: 2004    Last updated: 2017   

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2017) Many African IBAs, including those holding threatened birds, have no legal recognition or protection. Downloaded from on 08/12/2023