What are Biosphere Reserves? (Goals, Structure, Management and Examples)

What are Biosphere Reserves? (Goals, Structure, Management and Examples)
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All over the world, hundreds of sites called biosphere reserves have been established by UNESCO under its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme. These coastal and terrestrial areas combine conservation and sustainable economic development, in the context of the local cultures surrounding the sites.

Origins and Goals

The idea for establishing biosphere reserves was born in the UNESCO Biosphere Conference of 1968, and the subsequent launch of the MAB Programme in 1971. Sites that represent the world’s main ecosystems are brought into the World Network of Biosphere Reserves for protection of biodiversity and inter-disciplinary research into its sustainable use.

The conservation goals of the MAB Programme are not just aimed at isolated genetic resources, but the ecosystems that support them as well. Within these systems, genetic variation within populations and natural interactions among various organisms and their habitats continue to exist in an ecologically balanced manner.

Biosphere reserves support economic development only as far as it is compatible with the local environment and cultural practices of the people in its vicinity. The aim is harmonious co-existence with man and society, without bringing harm to any portion of the biosphere.

The sites also function as research, education and monitoring centers in support of local, national and global environmental concerns. They are used as living laboratories for the integrated management of the land, water and organisms inside them. Conservation methods and sustainable approaches that have been tested in the reserves are then introduced to other areas.

Three Zones

Each biosphere reserve consists of three zones, which work together to form a coordinated area of protection for local plants, animals and micro-organisms. These zones are the core area, the buffer zone and the transition area.

The core area, which is the center of the biosphere reserve, is a legally protected environmental haven. In some countries, the area is also a designated national park or even a World Heritage site. No activities are allowed which will harm the natural environment, and inhabitants, of the core area.

Immediately around and adjacent to the core area is the buffer zone, in which carefully managed use of natural resources is allowed. Such use may include activities like grazing and fishing, but only to the extent that local communities are benefited and the environment maintained.

The third area is the transition zone. This zone, the outermost portion of the biosphere reserve, facilitates its interaction with the surrounding locale. Economic development is encouraged, hand-in-hand with sustainable use. This is where research, education and training facilities related to the specific ecosystem of the reserve are located.

Nomination and Management

Though biosphere reserves are established under the international MAB Programme, their management falls under the charge of the countries in which they are found. They are funded by various means, including government, charities, and to a limited extent, UNESCO. UNESCO and the World Network also provide advice and support through information exchange.

National governments can nominate specific areas for designation as biosphere reserves. The nominations are reviewed by MAB and must meet specific criteria. Once approved, each reserve is reviewed periodically, eg., every 10 years, to ensure that the goals of the program are met.

Examples of Biosphere Reserves

Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

As of 2008, there are 531 designated biosphere reserves, located in 105 countries. Many countries have less than 10 sites, some with only one or two. The countries with the most sites are the United States (47), Russia (40), Spain (37) and Mexico (36).

Here are representative sites all over the world, with the year of their establishment in the program.

North America:

Redberry Lake in Canada (2000)

Olympic National Park in the United States (1976)

South America:

Galapagos Islands in Ecuador (1984)

Central Amazon Rainforest in Brazil (2001)


Mt. Kenya in Kenya (1978)

Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda (1983)


Palawan in the Philippines (1990)

Haui Tak Teak in Thailand (1977)


Berchtesgaden Alps in Germany (1990)

North Bull Island in Ireland (1981)

Oceania:Prince Regent River in Australia (1977)Ngaremeduu in Palau (2005)

Additional Reading and Credits

Additional Information:

UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves

Creative Commons Images:

Palawan (via Wikimedia)

Rwanda (via Flickr)