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Protected areas (PAs) have long been criticized as creations of and for an elite few, where associated costs, but few benefits, are borne by marginalized rural communities. Contrary to predictions of this argument, we found that average human population growth rates on the borders of 306 PAs in 45 countries in Africa and Latin America were nearly double average rural growth, suggesting that PAs attract, rather than repel, human settlement. Higher population growth on PA edges is evident across ecoregions, countries, and continents and is correlated positively with international donor investment in national conservation programs and an index of park-related funding. These findings provide insight on the value of PAs for local people, but also highlight a looming threat to PA effectiveness and biodiversity conservation.