A study aimed at preventing the continued destruction of wildlife in Madagascar is being heralded as a scientific triumph that could act as a blueprint to save many other species from mass extinction.
Scientists believe they now have a viable road map that could be used anywhere in the world to protect the many thousands of animals and plants living precariously in biodiversity "hotspots", which are increasingly threatened by human activities. The findings are being seen as vindication for a radical new approach to saving endangered species by treating wildlife as a complex web of interacting animals and plants, rather than the old idea of saving one species at a time.
Madagascar was chosen for the experiment because it has one of the richest varieties of wildlife in the world, with a high proportion of endemic species living nowhere else. It has also experienced massive destruction of its forests, with barely 10 per cent of its original habitat surviving.
Yet the international team of researchers who carried out the 10-year study found that it was possible to compile a workable conservation plan based on a detailed analysis of the whereabouts and habitats of 2,315 species of ants, butterflies, frogs, geckos, lemurs and plants.
They built up a vast library of information on the exact location of thousands of animals and plants across entire regions of Madagascar. They then designed computer software to work out the habitat range of each species and how to devise the optimum way of saving them.
It is the first time that scientists have compiled such a detailed database of wildlife from such a broad spectrum of species over such a wide area of land. They believe such data is vital in deciding on priorities that will save the greatest number of animals and plants in the shortest possible timeframe. "Our analysis raises the bar on what's possible in conservation planning, and helps decision-makers determine the most important places to protect," said Claire Kremen of the University of California Berkeley.
"Conservation planning has historically focused on protecting one species, or one group of species, at a time, but in our race to beat species extinction that one-species approach is not going to be quick enough," said Professor Kremen, a co-leader of the team, whose study is published in the journal Science.
"Never before have biologists and policy-makers had the tools that allow analysis of such a broad range of species, at such a fine scale, over such a large geographic area," she said.
Life on earth has experienced five mass extinctions during the past 3.5 billion years but the present, sixth wave is probably the fastest. It is estimated that about half of the world's plant species and three-quarters of vertebrate species are concentrated in biodiversity hotspots – such as Madagascar – which make up just 2.3 per cent of the earth's land surface.
Some 80 per cent of the 30,000 known species of animals in Madagascar are not found anywhere else: half of the world's chameleons and all species of lemurs are endemic to the island, which lies 200 miles off the south-east coast of Africa and was isolated from the rest of the world for 160 million years before being populated by humans about 2,500 years ago.
The research team of 22 scientists from six countries included specialists from the Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the University of York. Their work will form the basis of the Malagasy government's plans to triple the area of protected land from about 5 million acres to 15 million acres, or 10 per cent of the country's land surface.
Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences, said that a key part of the study was to include insects as well as the more popular animals, such as lemurs and geckos.
"Insects represent the bulk of terrestrial animal diversity but are often overlooked in conservation assessments. This study is unique in including a wide breadth of animals and plants in its conservation analysis," Dr Fisher said.
"We are the first generation to understand the impending demise of natural habitats, and we are the last generation that will have the ability to do something meaningful about it," he said.
A land apart
Madagascar was one of the most isolated places on earth before it was first populated by humans about 2,500 years ago. Humans have destroyed about 90 per cent of the island's original forests and dozens of species are thought to have gone extinct in the process. Forty-five species of large animals, including 16 species of lemur, have disappeared in modern times and a further 200 species are known to be at risk. In 2003, the Malagasy government announced an ambitious plan to conserve what is left of its pristine forests by building up the existing network of protected areas so that they will eventually cover 10 per cent of the country's territory. Nearly 13,000 plants and vertebrate animals are found only on Madagascar.