Conservation Without Borders

Final designBy Christina Davy

The Olympics are a huge undertaking, as several of our recent posts have discussed. They require large-scale international collaboration – in some cases, countries in the middle of political disputes are actually forced to put their arguments aside for a time to make the Olympics possible. It’s interesting that although there are examples of countries skipping an Olympics, or being refused entry, there are many more examples of political disputes being put on hold in order to celebrate the achievements of athletes from all over the world. Just think what we could achieve for the conservation of biodiversity if we could harness that kind of cooperation, political will and motivation!

Movement of wildlife like Bighorn Sheep is restricted by border walls, which can split a population in two. Photo from

In reality, conservation issues that span one or more borders are often more complicated to solve, not more simple. We are the only living things on Earth that recognize our political borders. But those borders can have a massive impact on other species. When borders become highly militarized or heavily fenced, animals can get stuck on one side. For example, the long border fence along the Mexico–U.S. border prevents movement of jaguars, big horn sheep, desert tortoises and black bears. It even impacts some bird species! Although most birds can fly, the destruction of habitat around high fences during the building process creates open spaces that some species avoid – so that they are still trapped on one side or the other.

The impacts of this fence may increase the risk of extinction for several species, because it divides small, threatened populations into even smaller, more isolated segments. So the debate about this border fence is tied tightly to the effect it is having on wildlife, and to extremely important concerns about the human rights consequences of any such structure.

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Satellite image of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, spanning the Canada-U.S. border. Image: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, using data obtained courtesy of the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility.

But borders don’t have to be outlined in razor wire, or be a dead-end for the movement of local people or wildlife. Transboundary Protected Areas (TBPAs) provide one example of how differently things can turn out. TBPAs, or “Peace Parks” are protected areas that span one or more borders, and are managed jointly by the neighbouring nations. They help to maintain healthy wildlife populations and intact ecosystems, and these benefit citizens on both sides of a border.

How do you launch such huge, politically complex projects? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently convened a panel of experts to consider this question, and provide expert guidance in the development of TBPAs and similar projects. This group is called the Global Transboundary Conservation Network, and it works to improve transboundary conservation. Part of its mandate is to develop the tools that other conservationists need to participate in this work. There is good reason to think the TBPA model works – we have a stunning example right here at home!

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is the oldest TBPA in the world. It was formed in 1932 by combining Waterton Lakes National Park, in Alberta, and Glacier National Park, in Montana, USA. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is famous for its high biodiversity and stunning landscape. Among other benefits to Canadian and U.S. citizens, this Peace Park protects the headwaters of three major watersheds. Other Peace Parks and similar cross-border protected areas can be found around the world. Together, these protected wild spaces are proof of what is possible when we engage in conservation with the same spirit of cooperation that we use for the Olympics.


Mountains soar over Waterton Lake. Photo: Quentin Golsteyn


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