The debate about poverty and conservation draws mainly on local case studies, particularly of the impacts of protected areas. Although it is clear that local and contingent variables have important effects on the social and economic impacts of protected area establishment, it is not known whether there is a general relationship between national wealth and the area, number and type of protected area designated. Here we conduct such an analysis. Our results suggest that wealthy countries have a larger number of protected areas of smaller size than poorer countries. However, we find few significant relationships between indicators of poverty and the extent of protected areas at a national scale. Our analysis therefore confirms that relationships between poverty and conservation action are dynamic and locally specific. This conclusion has implications for opposing positions within the debate on poverty and conservation. Critics of conservation who build upon local case studies to argue that protected areas make a significant contribution to poverty risk exaggerating the scale of the problem. However, conservation advocates also need to temper their enthusiasm. Outcomes in which both poverty alleviation and conservation goals are achieved may be possible in specific circumstances but clear choices will often need to be made between conservation and livelihood goals.