Image courtesy of Duncan Rawlinson @ TheLastMinuteBlog.com via flickr
Conservationists have long struggled to find the - let alone an - ideal strategy to save the world's most endangered species from going extinct. Given that the work of Russel A. Mittermeier and other prominent ecologists has indicated that 2.3% of the planet's land surface area contain upwards of 50% of all plant and 71-82% of all vertebrate species, they are racing against the clock to ensure that the combined impact of global warming and anthropogenic activities not overtake the remaining ones. One potential solution may lie in a high-resolution "conservation map" developed by an international team of scientists and described in the latest issue of the journal Science (sub. required).In the study, the scientists explain how they used this innovative map, which aggregated high-resolution spatial and taxonomic data for 2,135 species (covering 6 major groups), to develop the first quantitative conservation assessment for Madagascar - a critical biodiversity hotspot. Their work was facilitated by President Ravalomanana's commitment to enlarge its protected-area network (from 6.3% to 10%) - a move that allowed them to specifically identify hotspot regions in the country that complimented the existing reserves.
They input distribution models for 829 species and point occurrence data for the remaining ones (for which there wasn't enough data available) into a prioritization algorithm, dubbed "Zonation," which produced a ranking of conservation priorities. They used two principal criteria to designate the priority areas that best complemented those identified by the Madagascar government: the percent of species absent from the government's plan (which they call "complete gaps") and the proportional representation of species (to make sure narrow-ranged and less populous species get their fair shake).
Brian Fisher, an author on the study and a member of the California Academy of Sciences, told The Times' Lewis Smith that: "This study is unique in including a wide breadth of animals and plants in its conservation analysis. This type of multi-taxon analysis will be critical to our efforts to preserve biodiversity for future generations." Indeed, Fisher hopes the computer technology developed to create this map will now be applied to other major hotspots around the world; conservationists should prioritize the preservation of the most biodiverse, vulnerable regions, he explained.
The authors acknowledge that the designation of new protected areas will need to take into account different regions' unique socioeconomic factors. However, because these maps take several years to build, they recommend that governments develop appropriate conservation strategies by the end of the year to accelerate the process. This model could succeed where many have previously failed because it conspicuously discards the (more or less) haphazard approach taken by policymakers and scientists in delineating protected areas; a fully fleshed-out assessment, that considers not only biodiversity but a region's geography and ecology, could provide a more accurate, highly targeted technique.