To contribute to the aspirations of recent international biodiversity conventions, protected areas (PAs) must be strategically located and not simply established on economically marginal lands as they have in the past. With refined international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity to target protected areas in places of “importance to biodiversity,” perhaps they may now be. We analyzed location biases in PAs globally over historic (pre‐2004) and recent periods. Specifically, we examined whether the location of protected areas are more closely associated with high concentrations of threatened vertebrate species or with areas of low agricultural opportunity costs. We found that both old and new protected areas did not target places with high concentrations of threatened vertebrate species. Instead, they appeared to be established in locations that minimize conflict with agriculturally suitable lands. This entrenchment of past trends has substantial implications for the contributions these protected areas are making to international commitments to conserve biodiversity. If protected‐area growth from 2004 to 2014 had strategically targeted unrepresented threatened vertebrates, >30 times more species (3086 or 2553 potential vs. 85 actual new species represented) would have been protected for the same area or the same cost as the actual expansion. With the land available for conservation declining, nations must urgently focus new protection on places that provide for the conservation outcomes outlined in international treaties.
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