A New Model to Protect Biodiversity
14 Apr, 2008 12:37 pm
In an era of climate change, pollution, and rapid habitat loss, it?s all too easy for doom and gloom to prevail when discussing conservation issues. However, armed with the right information, it is still possible to create conservation success storie
"We are the first generation to understand the impending demise of natural habitats,” says Dr. Fisher, “and we are the last generation that will have the ability to do something meaningful about it. This type of multi-taxon analysis will be critical to our efforts to preserve biodiversity for future generations.”
An important opportunity currently exists to influence conservation decisions in Madagascar, since the government announced in 2003 that it planned to triple the country’s protected-area network from about 5 million to 15 million acres (20,234-60,700 square kilometers), or about 10 percent of the island’s total land surface, by the end of 2008. It would be tempting to select additional conservation areas based on the distribution of large, charismatic mammals, such as the country’s iconic lemurs. However, Fisher and his colleagues found that choosing conservation areas based on a single taxon would result in a reserve network that failed to protect between 16 to 39 percent of the species in their study. Conversely, by running a complex algorithm that took into account distribution data from six different taxa, they were able to recommend protected areas that would preserve all 2,315 species in their study.
“Insects represent the bulk of terrestrial animal diversity but are often overlooked in conservation assessments,” says Fisher. “This study is unique in including a wide breath of animals and plants in its conservation analysis.”
This type of complex analysis has not been possible in the past because of a lack of data on species distributions and computational constraints on achieving high-resolution assessments over large geographic areas. To overcome these obstacles, Fisher and his colleagues spent nearly a decade amassing data on species distribution in Madagascar. They also worked with computer scientists at AT&T and Finland’s Helsinki University to develop the necessary software to run their analysis. Before running their analysis, they placed additional weight on species with the highest risk of extinction—those with narrow ranges and those that have experienced a substantial loss of habitat.
To date, Madagascar has established protected areas that total 6.3 percent of the country’s land mass, with an additional 3.7 percent left to be assigned. The recent analysis run by Fisher and his colleagues indicates that the current protected areas encompass about 70 percent of the species in their study. Based on the results of their computations, they have suggested locations for the remaining reserve areas that will extend protection to all 2,315 species in the study. Their proposed solution also creates additional coverage for the most vulnerable species on their list.
The team’s results provide some fresh insights into conservation decisions in Madagascar. For instance, they found that many endemic species currently lack protection because they live in areas with relatively low forest cover. Without the benefit of robust data analysis, these areas have historically been neglected in favor of protecting large forest blocks.
Although conservation areas in Madagascar must be identified by the end of 2008, final refinement and legal designation will not be completed until 2012. Therefore, Fisher and his colleagues will be able to refine their recommendations as new species are discovered, or as proposed protected areas are rejected or destroyed. This quantitative, practical approach to conservation decision-making is a valuable model for biodiversity hotspots in other parts of the world.
Reference: C. Kremen, A. Cameron, A. Moilanen, et al. "," Science, 11 April 2008: 222-226. Abstract available here.