National parks and similar protected areas are important for nature conservation, as carbon sinks and as places where human beings can reconnect with the natural Earth. They are seed banks, natural pharmacies and home to many indigenous people. They provide refuges for animals and other life forms, and benchmarks against which we can measure our impact on the planet. They offer a spiritual refuge from the busyness of modern life, even for those of us who never or rarely visit them. Protected areas are also places where the natural world can exist in its own right and for its own sake: where species can evolve and thrive, and where natural processes can unfold with minimal human intervention.
The protection of extensive areas of largely intact and undisturbed country is essential if we are to maintain the planet’s biodiversity. It is intrinsic to Sustainable Goal 15 which aims to ‘protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’. Encouraging progress has been made in the past 25 years: since 1990 the world’s protected areas have increased from 13.4 million to 32 million square kilometres of the total area covered. While protected areas now cover 14.7% of the world’s terrestrial area, not all of this land has the degree of protection that it deserves, and less than 20% of ‘key biodiversity areas’ are completely protected.
One of the highest levels of protection is World Heritage, which is awarded by UNESCO to areas or sites judged to have outstanding global significance. Globally over 200 sites are World Heritage listed for their natural values, including 16 in Australia.