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UNEP online initiative makes touring world’s 150,000 most spectacular nature sites possible

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The Kakum Canopy Walkway - one of Ghana's tourist attractions

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has joined forces with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to create www.protectedplanet.net – an interactive, social media-based website that provides in-depth information on both the leading lights and hidden gems of the conservation world.

This has made touring 150,000 of the world’s protected areas from an armchair now possible with just the click of a mouse.

A press statement from the UNEP says by using the latest satellite images, users can pinpoint individual protected areas – such as national parks or marine reserves – and zoom in for information on endangered species, native plant life or types of terrain.

Released last Tuesday, the statement also says that Protected Planet further offers visitors the opportunity to upload photographs of their trips to protected areas, write travelogues of what they saw and experienced for Wikipedia and recommend places of interest nearby -information that can be shared through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

According to the statement issued in Nagoya, Japan jointly with the IUCN, this in turn might inspire others to make the journey, thus bringing much needed income to communities in often poor and sometimes remote areas of the globe.

It adds that the Ecotourism industry is growing fast and currently captures $77 billion of the global tourism market, and that “As concern about global warming increases, more tourists than ever are opting for eco-friendly holidays, including visits to protected areas.”

“According to Travel Weekly magazine, sustainable tourism could grow to 25% of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately $473 billion a year,” the statement quotes.

On his part, Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “National parks and protected areas represent one key and successful response to conserving and managing this planet’s nature-based assets. And in a way that can generate revenues and livelihoods for local communities.”

He adds that “Indeed by some estimates, $1-$2 billion of global tourism is linked to the world’s network of around 150,000 protected sites”.

“But the benefits of well-managed tourism are currently uneven with some parks popular magnets for tourists and others hidden gems that are relatively unknown. Protected Planet has the potential to change this by bringing the world’s protected areas into a living room near you. So whether you are a government official or a scientist or a citizen looking for a holiday of a lifetime, click on www.protectedplanet.net for a new adventure,” he urged.

Also commenting on the new partnership, Nik Lopoukhine, Chairman of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, said: “National parks and protected areas in many ways support life as we know it on planet Earth. ProtectedPlanet.net will help identify and communicate the many values of protected areas to the world, including for carbon and freshwater, ensuring that the support base for these areas will be broadened.”

Buttressing the view shared by Achim Steiner, the disparity between popular parks and rarely visited ones is highlighted by the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal.

Containing some of the highest peaks in the world, Annapurna is Nepal’s largest protected area whose snow-capped peaks and mountain lakes can be viewed on protectedplanet.net.
Between 2000 and 2004, Annapurna received over 260,000 visitors, generating US$7 million in revenue and a share of the income went towards conservation projects with local partners.

Protectedplanet.net, launched Tuesday at the 10th Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, offers an ‘Explore the World’ function where users can take an online visit to several protected areas.

Alongside familiar names such as the Serengeti in Tanzania or Yellowstone National Park in the United States, there are thousands of lesser-known sites that attract far fewer visitors.

Citing Monte Cristi National Park in the Dominican Republic as an example of unknown tourist destinations, the statement says that although travel websites describe a remote site off the tourist radar, a quick scan on protectedplanet.net reveals diverse habitats of mangroves and beaches with abundance of birdlife, including pink-coloured spoonbills, pelicans and the magnificent frigatebird – a species renowned for its scarlet throat pouch that inflates like a balloon during mating season.

“Protectedplanet.net is about harnessing technology for biodiversity conservation. It showcases the beauty of protected areas and motivates anyone who discovers it to help, from a tourist to a government official”, says Craig Mills, Project Manager of Protected Planet from UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC).

“There is a huge network of people interested in protected areas out there that we haven’t been tapping into, protectedplanet.net provides the place and the tools for them to get involved and do their part”, he added.

According to the release announcing the UNEP/IUCN collaboration, as well as being an information mine for tourists, protectedplanet.net will also offer downloadable information on protected areas for governments, scientists and NGOs working on conservation.

It also foresees that online reports from tourists and visitors including sightings of species have the potential to strengthen that work.

Meanwhile, protectedplanet.net brings together information from all over the internet, including species data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), protected area descriptions from Wikipedia, photos from Panoramio and Flickr and Google maps. The website also expands on the World Database on Protected Areas currently managed by UNEP-WCMC.

It further applies an innovative, ‘Web 2.0’ approach to conservation and will be a powerful tool to help monitor future biodiversity targets.

With half a million photos already on the site, protectedplanet.net has the potential to supply vast amounts of biodiversity information to the global community and, most importantly, to prove that it has never been easier for one person to make a difference to conservation.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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