The last two decades have seen the crystallization of fears by conservationists that there is a substantial extinction crisis looming, if not already unfolding. They have witnessed the growth of a substantial network of protected areas whose development is becoming increasingly driven by, and responsive to, the geography of rarity, endemism and land-use change. But the same period has also seen substantial critiques of conservation practice, both in terms of its impact on nature, and its consequences for society. The result has been a vigorous examination of protected areas (often euphemized as ‘parks’). The discussion has often been confusing according to the questions that different protagonists were asking. We attempt to provide some clarity here.