Efforts to save some of the world’s most endangered species may be missing their targets by concentrating on the places in the world that do not have the richest density of animals and plants, scientists have found.
Global treaties aimed at preserving threatened wildlife have failed to identify the regions of the world with the highest proportion of endemic species that are not found anywhere else, according to a study published in the journal Science.
The scientists analysed a database of 110,000 plants compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and found that two thirds of endemic species live on just 17 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, yet less than one sixth of this land is legally protected in some way.
Two international agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, aspires to protect 17 per cent of the world by 2020 and in doing so aims to conserve 60 per cent of plant species.
However, the study found that although it is possible to conserve up to two thirds of endemic species by protecting 17 per cent of the land, the wrong kind of land is currently being protected as national parks and other types of national wildlife zones.
“To achieve these goals, we need to protect more land, on average, than we currently do, and much more in key places such as Madagascar, New Guinea and Ecuador,” said Professor Stuart Pimm of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who led the research.
“Our study identifies regions of importance. The logical and very challenging next step will be to make tactical local decisions within those regions to secure the most critical land for conservation,” Professor Pimm said.
The analysis found that plant species are not distributed uniformly around the world but concentrated in “biodiversity hotspots”, with some regions such as Central America, the Caribbean, the Northern Andes, and parts of Africa and Asia, having high densities of endemic species. Islands are also particularly rich in endemic plants.
“Species endemic to small geographical ranges are at a much higher risk of being threatened or endangered than those with large ranges,” said Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Resarch’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge, and lead author of the study.
“We combined regions to maximise the number of species in the minimal area of land. With that information, we can more accurately evaluate each region’s relative importance for conservation, and assess international priorities accordingly,” Dr Joppa said.
“We essentially asked the question: what’s the smallest amount of land area that we can possibly fit the most endemic species. When you do that you see it is possible to conserve more than 60 per cent of species by protecting 17 per cent of the land, but it is not so easy when most of the species don’t fall into the protected areas,” he said.
Professor Pimm said that it is good that the world has set aside a sizeable chunk of the land surface for protection status but more effort needs to be spent in matching up the protected areas with the areas with the densest concentration of threatened wildlife.
“The problem…is that some ecosystems are much easier to protect than others. It’s easy to protect ice sand sand – high mountains and remote deserts – but we need to protect more of the places where plant species are concentrated,” Professor Pimm said.