Protected areas (PAs) form the backbone of European biodiversity-conservation efforts. Despite extensive PA coverage in many countries on the Continent, biodiversity is declining throughout Europe. According to international scientific studies, PA management schemes often fail because benefits for local people are not realised, and their participation is neglected. However, despite the development of integrated PA concepts such as biosphere reserves and nature parks, instances of PA failure are regularly reported, suggesting factors other than the mere selection of integrated concepts. In order to identify such factors, a qualitative meta-analysis of 20 case studies from 10 European countries was conducted. It was generally found that though providing benefits for and involving local people are important success factors, the prevailing socio-economic and political conditions have the potential to prevent management success. While this parallels other studies that caution to view certain paradigms of area protection as a panacea and call for closer attention to the existing conditions, another important factor was identified: the perceptions and attitudes of the local people and of PA managers. They may affect PA management success through restricting opportunities and support for adequate benefits and participation processes. Therefore, it is essential to gain knowledge on both the conditions and the perceptions and attitudes. Here, socio-ecological monitoring appears to be an important means of gaining this kind of knowledge and evaluating it. This will eventually engender adaptive learning processes that accommodate the complexity of social-ecological systems and their biocultural diversity.