Improving Nature Reserve Design

Abigail Rose Lindner
Abigail Lindner
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

In the Fall 2019 issue of OR/MS Tomorrow, then-editorial board member Zulqarnain Haider wrote an article on the potential for mathematical optimization to help preserve biodiversity. The term biodiversity, defined as the diversity of life on Earth, is central to maintaining the health of both human and non-human communities. However, a consensus view of how life’s complexity supports the stability of planet health has remained elusive for decades [3] . One central area Haider recognized as particularly relevant to the operations research (OR) optimization study is conservation planning (see [1]). Identifying and protecting nature reserves are among the conservation planning tasks. This article considers a specific nature reserve design project in China to better understand where operations research could help conservation efforts.

The Importance of Nature Reserves

Technological advancements in the 19th and 20th centuries radically transformed economic and social landscapes. Counter to rises in GDP and human health, these advancements have had the unintended consequences of endangering the well-being of ecosystems and the species that depend on natural resources that human consumption and encroachment are rapidly depleting. In response, national governments have established protected areas, also known as conservation areas. As defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a protected area is a "clearly defined geographical space that is recognized, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with its associated ecosystem services and cultural values." A nature reserve is one such protected area. In demarcating land for nature reserves, we acknowledge humans’ responsibility to protect the ecosystems that human pressures may threaten. The regions set apart as nature reserves often contain a rich level of biodiversity and shelter endangered species, and so play an important ecological role.

Organization of Nature Reserves

In 1971, UNESCO began the intergovernmental Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme for improving human-natural environment relationships [2,4]. The program responds in part to the common situation of development and conservation conflict, with advancements in the former reducing the efficiency of the latter as human communities push closer and closer to protected areas [2]. A MAB Reserve has three semi-concentric zones: the core zone, the buffer zone, and the experimental zone [5,6]. The core zone serves conservation needs and excludes human activity; the experimental zone serves human economic and societal development needs; and the buffer zone softens the impacts of the experimental zone on the core zone [2,4].

In the spirit of this program, the Chinese government has mandated reserve zoning since 1994. Zoning ordinances that reduce human activity in the experimental zone and keep intense human activity from creeping into the core zone could be effective in line conservation-development balancing act if implemented well. However, unfortunately, many nature reserve managers in China have observed shortcomings in their current conservation zoning [2,4,5,6]. Examples of inefficiencies or failures in existing nature reserves include zoning based on human settlement rather than functional suitability [2,4] and weak enforcement of human activity restrictions in the non-experimental zones [2,6]. To ensure that nature reserves are fulfilling their conservation goals, managers must have a better understanding of the needs and distribution of the animals that the reserves are designed to protect, the needs and distribution of the human settlements in the outlying buffer and experimental zones, and whether the resources provided in each of these zones are sufficient. In these regards, tools from the field of operations research can help.

Improving Nature Reserve Zoning: Pheasants in Baihuashan

The Baihuashan National Nature Reserve (BNNR) lies on the southwestern side of Beijing. As the capital of China, Beijing is an unexpected location, perhaps, for a nature reserve. Still, the mountains bordering Beijing and the provinces to its west are some of the few places where the brown-eared pheasant, Crossoptilon mantchuricum, lives. (It would not be foolish to assume that this bird has brown feathers about its head, but it would be wrong.) Unfortunately, isolation, deforestation, and poaching have made the species vulnerable to endangerment; hence, the criticality of nature reserves that encompass the mountainous northern regions that the pheasant favors. In addition to the BNNR, seven other nature reserves exist in Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hebei Provinces to protect the brown-eared pheasant.

The BNNR covers 214.4 square kilometers (about 82.7 square miles) of land, of which 31.44% constitutes the core zone, 22.45% comprises the buffer zone, and 46.11% constitutes the experimental zone. Its brown-eared pheasant population is small, totaling about 200 individuals, and the species’ management system in Beijing is relatively new, having been established in 2008. Recently, [4] set out to determine the distribution of the pheasant population within the BNNR and to identify any gaps in the reserves’ functional zones. They wanted to determine whether the established core zone was optimally organized to conserve the brown-eared pheasant. To accomplish these goals, [4] used line transect sampling to estimate the abundance of the species. They identified the environmental variables influencing whether a pheasant was happy living in a particular spot. Predictive models combined the observational population data and the experimental environment data to predict the presence of the brown-eared pheasant across the reserve. Based on these predictions, the researchers divided the BNNR into "presence" zones deemed suitable for a brown-eared pheasant’s habitat and "absence" zones assumed unsuitable.

By comparing the predictions with reality, [4] discovered that 50% of the habitats suitable for brown-eared pheasants were in the established core zone. Regarding the remaining 50% distributed between the buffer zone and the experimental zone - about 13% and 37%, respectively. As one can guess, it is certainly not optimal for the experimental zone, which has the highest human activity, to contain over one-third of the suitable habitat. As such, the next step was to propose a redrawing of the zones that would increase the percentage of suitable habitat that the core zone encompassed while also not too severely reducing the areas of the equally essential buffer and experimental zones. In modeling a new zoning plan, the researchers wanted to "[minimize] habitat fragmentation and [maximize] connectivity among suitable habitats." In the end, by taking into account the data and predictive modeling on the habitat requirements of the brown-eared pheasant, they did produce such a plan, rethinking zone boundaries so that over 85% of the suitable areas fell into the core zone.

The term "operations research" doesn’t appear anywhere in the research paper. Nevertheless, the application of OR ideas is obvious. As technology is helping us collect better and more accessible data on the state of the planet, it is not unlikely that OR will be called upon to engage further with conservation problems like these [1].


Protected areas are critical for balancing the drive of human development with the responsibility to conserve the natural world and the species whose habitats are threatened. Satisfying both needs is challenging, but in the work of [4] at the Baihuashan National Nature Reserve, we see the potential for operations research to help resolve this ecology-economy conflict and strengthen conservation efforts.




[1] Alagador, D., Cerdeira, J.O., 2022. Operations research applicability in spatial conservation planning. Journal of Environmental Management 315, 115172.

[2] Hull, V., Xu,W., Liu,W., Zhou, S., Vi.a, A., Zhang, J., Tuanmu, M.N., Huang, J., Linderman, M., Chen, X., et al., 2011. Evaluating the efficacy of zoning designations for protected area management. Biological Conservation 144, 3028–3037.

[3] Landi, P., Minoarivelo, H.O., Br.nnstr.m, .., Hui, C., Dieckmann, U., 2018. Complexity and stability of adaptive ecological networks: a survey of the theory in community ecology, in: Systems analysis approach for complex global challenges. Springer, pp. 209–248.

[4] Song, K.,Mi, C.R., Zhao, Y.Z., Yang, N., Sun, Y.H., Xu, J.L., 2021. Zonation of nature reserve according to the habitat requirement of conservation target: a case study on the endangered brown eared-pheasant at baihuashan nature reserve. Global Ecology and Conservation 32, e01941.

[5] Tang, J., Lu, H., Xue, Y., Li, J., Li, G., Mao, Y., Deng, C., Li, D., 2021. Data-driven planning adjustments of the functional zoning of houhe national nature reserve. Global Ecology and Conservation 29, e01708.

[6] Zhuang, H., Xia,W., Zhang, C., Yang, L.,Wanghe, K., Chen, J., Luan, X.,Wang,W., 2021. Functional zoning