Brief window for
biodiversity

 
Russell A. Mittermeier and Gustavo A.B. da Fonseca
say that protected areas are cornerstones for biodiversity conservation and argue that efforts should be concentrated on particularly biodiverse ones

Today’s extinction rates are such that we have only a brief window of opportunity before many important plant and animal species are lost for ever. Much has been written about this impending crisis, but now the major theatres of imminent extinctions can be pinpointed with a high degree of precision. These are ‘biodiversity hotspots’, the areas that claim the largest number of endemic species and that have already lost over 70 per cent of their original vegetation. Conservation International (CI) focuses on these as well as key marine ecosystems and the ‘high biodiversity wilderness areas’ – vast, largely intact, areas that also harbour high levels of diversity and endemics, including the large tropical rainforest blocks of Amazonia, the Congo region and New Guinea.

The hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas cover only 7.5 per cent of the Earth’s land surface – but contain an astounding 62 per cent of all plants and at least 55 per cent of all mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians as endemics. Clearly, if we are to conserve biodiversity, these areas must receive a proportionately large share of the resources invested in conservation internationally. Unless we focus on them we will lose a major portion of global biodiversity regardless of how successful we are in other less diverse places. Parks, reserves and other types of protected areas – including the World Heritage sites – constitute the single most important tool to counter human-induced extinctions. Without a representative and well-managed global network of protected areas, we will not be able to stem the tide. Almost without exception, the most endangered species will not survive outside protected areas. This is particularly true for biodiversity hotspots: only about 40 per cent of their area is under some form of protection, representing a mere 4 per cent of the original extent of these ecosystems. This year’s World Parks Congress (WPC) uniquely spotlights the importance of protected areas, and the urgent need to create new – and manage existing – ones. We believe that the protected areas are so vital that it is no longer adequate to hold such an important gathering only once every decade. We propose that IUCN-The World Conservation Union and its World Commission on Protected Areas change its frequency to once every five years, and that we use these meetings not just to discuss new directions but to monitor progress over the previous period.

Principal objectives
We also propose 13 other points for particular consideration by the international community.

1. Although more than 10 per cent of Earth’s land area is currently within protected areas, many were established for scenic values, and not necessarily for biodiversity conservation, which must be recognized as one of their principal objectives. The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at CI has convened several dozen experts to produce the first-ever global gap analysis of protected areas. This has been specifically aiming at providing some of the most important content for the Parks Congress and to generate tangible goals for the international community.

2. If terrestrial coverage is inadequate, marine protected area coverage is much more so. Only a fraction of a percentage of the oceans is under protected status, while ‘no-take zones’, the equivalent of terrestrial parks and reserves, are ludicrously small. At sea we are a decade or more behind what has been done on land.

3. Protected area coverage for freshwater systems, notably rivers and lakes, also lags behind and requires much further attention, especially given the growing importance and worldwide scarcity of freshwater resources.

4. Some feel that we should focus only on improving the management of existing protected areas. But we strongly believe that, given the short window of opportunity before us, now is also the time to create new parks and reserves in priority areas identified by the global gap analysis and various other studies.

5. New areas often go through a phase as ‘paper parks’ – officially created yet not given adequate management. However, our research reveals that paper parks are important in securing areas that are subject to rapidly advancing development frontiers, even if it takes time for them to be adequately staffed, funded and managed.

6. The selection of new areas should be strongly based on biodiversity criteria, especially in areas like the hotspots. The global gap analysis developed for the WPC is the first study ever to use species as the basis for identifying major gaps in the coverage of protected areas worldwide.

7. The most important protected areas, old and new, need special recognition through existing mechanisms, the most notable of which is the World Heritage Convention. The emphasis placed by the United Nations Foundation on the importance of World Heritage sites in biodiversity conservation has been especially welcome (see below).
Stakeholders at all levels should be engaged in establishing and managing protected areas
8. Protected areas need to be created at a variety of different levels, including federal, state, and even municipal ones. This is especially true in countries where federal agencies may feel overextended, but where states may be excited about the possibility of having their own areas. Privately protected areas can also play a significant role in efforts to increase coverage; many models for this already exist, such as the Nature Conservancy in the United States and the Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPN) network in Brazil. Demarcated indigenous territories also need more attention as a form of protected area.

9. Protected areas need to be linked in broader landscapes through conservation corridors to secure their long-term ecological viability. Protected areas themselves must be considered the ‘core areas’ or the ‘anchors’ around which such corridors should be built, rather than as a secondary consideration to restoration of the intervening spaces.

10. The critical role of protected areas in maintaining key ecosystem services such as watershed integrity and carbon sequestration needs much further attention, especially when justifying the creation of new areas and seeking financial support both for them and for existing ones. The role of marine and freshwater protected areas in this will be especially important.

11. Protected areas should be seen as an essential component of reducing poverty rather than as antithetical to it. Stakeholders at all levels should be engaged in establishing and managing protected areas, and should benefit from them; they should also recognize their roles and responsibilities. Protected areas should be a key component of local development strategies – but this should be a structured process that provides long-term benefits for all, but not in a way that diminishes the value of parks and reserves for biodiversity protection and future generations.

12. Funding for protected area management is recognized to be woefully inadequate at the global level. More resources are needed for both short-term and long-term activities, and due consideration should be given to creating financial mechanisms, like trust funds, to guarantee basic management costs in perpetuity. A few such mechanisms now exist (such as CI’s Global Conservation Fund) but more are needed.

13. Last but not least, the global community of protected area professionals needs to do much more to highlight the importance of the areas, and to demonstrate how they are cornerstones of global and regional development.

Biodiversity conservation is unquestionably one of the most critical issues of our time. All biodiversity is important to all people and each nation should do everything possible to conserve its living natural heritage – for both its own intrinsic value and for the critical role it plays in long-term sustainable development


Russell A. Mittermeier is President of Conservation International and Gustavo A.B. da Fonseca is its Executive Vice President and Executive Director for its Center for Applied Biodiversity.

PHOTOGRAPH: Harry Laine/UNEP/Topham

World Heritage sites are located within 16 of the 25 global biodiversity hotspots, which are a primary strategic target for CI’s work. CI and the UN Foundation have formed a partnership for a three-year, $15 million initiative to work on projects within natural World Heritage sites. The UN Foundation works to sustain sites that are particularly important for their biological values. Through CI, the World Heritage Centre will be able to tap into existing conservation networks and increase on-the-ground conservation capacity.



This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

 
Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996


AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Biodiversity
Ecosystems