Friday, November 15, 2013

Effective Biodiversity Conservation

Although protected areas (PAs) cover 13% of Earth's land, substantial gaps remain in their coverage of global biodiversity. Thus, there has been emphasis on strategic expansion of the global PA network. However, because PAs are often understaffed, underfunded, and beleaguered in the face of external threats, efforts to expand PA coverage should be complemented by appropriate management of existing PAs. Previous calls for enhancing PA management have focused on improving operational effectiveness of each PA [e.g., staffing and budgets]. Little guidance has been offered on how to improve collective effectiveness for meeting global biodiversity conservation goals. We provide guidance for strategically allocating management efforts among and within existing PAs to strengthen their collective contribution toward preventing global species extinctions.

This is the first paragraph of a new study just published in Science in which colleagues identified the protected areas most critical to preventing extinctions of the world's mammals, birds and amphibians. Resulting from an international collaboration, this analysis provides practical advice for improving the effectiveness of protected areas in conserving global biodiversity.

The researchers calculated what they called 'irreplaceability' of individual protected areas, based on data on some 173,000 terrestrial protected areas and assessments of 21,500 species on the IUCN Red List. Their analysis looks at the contribution each protected area makes to the long-term survival of species.
Figure taken from Le Saout et. al. 2013

As a result, 78 sites have been identified as exceptionally irreplaceable. Together, they harbor the majority of the populations of more than 600 birds, amphibians, and mammals, half of which are considered globally threatened. In many cases these areas protect species that cannot be found anywhere else. Many are already designated as being of 'Outstanding Universal Value' under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. These sites include the Galápagos Islands, the Manú National Park in Peru, and the Western Ghats in India. However, half of the land covered by these areas does not have World Heritage recognition. This includes for example the Udzungwa Mountains National Park in Tanzania, the Ciénaga de Zapata Wetland of International Importance in Cuba, and -- the most irreplaceable site in the world for threatened species -- the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park in Colombia.

One needs to keep in mind that such a study can only be the beginning. All analyses focused on three groups representing the world's terrestrial vertebrate diversity. The advantage is the amount of data available for those animals but there is also a very practical reason to look at them first:

Local management plans often focus on charismatic species, and management decisions favoring these (e.g., habitat protection) will often benefit a whole set of species. However, management objectives established for particular species sometimes deliver no benefits to, or can even jeopardize the persistence of, other species. In such cases, we propose that species for which a PA has the highest conservation responsibility should be the first consideration for management and monitoring.

I guess we should be thinking of doing similar assessments for marine areas and of course for all other life on earth as: 

PAs are our main hope for meeting ambitious global conservation targets, such as preventing species extinctions, but the costs of ensuring their effective management are substantial, albeit affordable. We hope that the conceptual guidance and specific data provided here will support strategic reinforcement of the world's existing PAs, to improve their individual and collective effectiveness for conserving global biodiversity.

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