An international team of scientists has identified the most irreplaceable places on the planet when it comes to protecting biodiversity. They hope their work will lead to more effective conservation efforts.
For their study, which was published in the journal Science, they analyzed data on 173,000 terrestrial protected areas and 21,500 species — including amphibians, mammals and birds from the World Database of Protected Areas and the Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — to compile the list.
To determine which sites were most irreplaceable, they calculated the number of species found in protected areas with a measure of how dependent each species is on their home, whether they’re found anywhere else and whether these places have any formal protection. The IUCN used the example of the Laysan Duck, who is Critically Endangered and can only be found at the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and 13 species of amphibians who are restricted to Venezuela’s Canaima National Park.
The top 137 areas that were identified as most important for the survival of 627 species, half of which are critically endangered, spread over 74 sites and span 34 countries with the Formaciones de Tepuyes Natural Monument in Venezuela coming in at number one.
According to the IUCN, many of these irreplaceable areas, like Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, are already designated as being of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention. However, more than half the land covered by these areas does not have World Heritage recognition, including one of the most important on the list: Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park, which is home to the greatest number of threatened and declining species. Also excluded are Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata wetlands and Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains National Park.
“These exceptional places would all be strong candidates for World Heritage status,” said Soizic Le Saout, lead author of the study. “Such recognition would ensure effective protection of the unique biodiversity in these areas, given the rigorous standards required for World Heritage sites.”
More worrisome is that many of these places are only protected in theory and exist as “paper parks” that have a title, but no plan in place to ensure their protection, or to keep them from degrading or their wildlife from disappearing as a result of poaching, underfunding or encroaching human development.
“Páramo Urrao National Protective Forests Reserves, in Colombia, for example, does not really exist,” said Paul Salaman, an expert in Colombian biodiversity and CEO of the Rainforest Trust. “It was legally created in 1975, but this was never translated into on-the-ground management”.
In addition to calling for greater protection of these valuable sites, the researchers are also calling on people to rethink how we prioritize species, reports Popular Science. It’s easy to focus on certain ones in need of protection, like pandas, tigers and polar bears, but likeable species may not be in the greatest need in some areas and are overshadowing others who are harder to bring attention to. Researchers note that they’re all significant, but are recommending that management plans target species that are in the greatest need in their area, even if they aren’t necessarily fluffy and adorable.
For the full list of irreplaceable places and more information about the species who call them home, check here.
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