The UN Environment Programme is turning to the wiki-world in an attempt to improve protection of the natural one.
Its new venture – protectedplanet.net – aims to help people visit little-known protected areas, so generating revenue and improving knowledge about them.
The launch at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting came amid reports warning that protection of the sea needs to be increased rapidly.
A target to protect 10% of oceans by 2012 will be missed by a long way.
Protected areas are one of the most effective ways of safeguarding plants, animals and ecosystems, said Charles Besancon, head of the protected areas programme at the UN Environment Programme (Unep).
“We know national parks and protected areas are important for many functions – they provide fresh water to one-third of the world’s largest urban areas, they protect carbon, they protect endangered species,” he told BBC News.
“For example, the last 600 mountain gorillas are in protected areas surrounded by communities – without the protected areas, we’d lose the mountain gorilla.”
Unep maintains a database of protected areas around the world, based on data from governments and other authorities.
But with an estimated 150,000 sites in existence, data on what is in the sites and how they are protected is, in many cases, scanty.
“[The database] doesn’t get updated as much as we’d like; so we’ve recognised that the best way is to reach out to the public,” said Mr Besancon.
Protectedplanet.net links into and from existing web-based resources, such as Google maps, Wikipedia and the Google-owned photo-sharing site Panoramio.
Species information comes from the less well-known Global Biodiversity Information Facility (Gbif).
Users can search for sites close to a holiday destination, for example – and may find there are protected areas or national parks that do not usually feature in tourist itineraries.
Unep hopes this will increase the number of people visiting such sites, generating revenue that can help with their upkeep.
It will also allow first-time visitors to create Wikipedia entries on the areas, or post photos, that can attract others.
Meanwhile, public feedback on how sites are managing their wildlife could enhance standards.
Protecting land and sea features in a number of targets agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
But whereas about 13% of the Earth’s land area is now under some form of protection, the record for marine areas is barely 1% – way short of the 10% by 2012 target, for example.
In a major report launched here, a number of organisations including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) say that needs to be increased rapidly.
Failing to do so, they warn, will make it harder for marine ecosystems to survive in a world where ocean water is becoming on average warmer and more acidic as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions.
As the report was being launched here, scientists were warning that coral reefs in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean are seeing a major die-off due to unusually warm water conditions.
The Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, a network of university research facilities, said the warming caused coral “bleaching” in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Burma and Sri Lanka.
“It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998,” said Andrew Baird, a scientist at James Cook University.
“It may prove to be the worst such event known to science.”
Warm water causes coral to expel the algae with which they usually live in a symbiotic relationship – without which they die.