Why biodiversity is declining even as protected areas increase

Why is biodiversity around the world in so much trouble, even though we keep adding new protected areas?  A new paper led by Australian researcher Ro Hill provides a compelling explanation.  Here, Ro summarizes her and her colleagues' key findings:

We’ve expanded the protected area coverage around the globe, to around 15% of the land surface -- with more than a quarter of all countries already exceeding the agreed global target of 17% by 2020.  But biodiversity loss continues apace.

Biodiversity in trouble...

Biodiversity in trouble...

Why?   Our new paper models how this paradox arises in tropical forests, from competition between governance regimes, and makes four important points:

1. The forces that drive forest protection do not necessarily oppose those that drive forest clearance for development. 

The diagram above says it all: we can keep expanding the developed area of the planet AND expanding protected areas as long as there are still some remaining forested habitats.
The power of the “develop” and “protect” governance regimes determines the strength of the forces that move the boundaries between areas under protection, areas of remaining forest habitat, and areas under development.

The leaders of the G20 nations recently gave a huge boost to the power of development regimes by promising to invest 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030.  There is no such investment for conservation -- nothing even close!

2.   The power of the “protect” governance regime can actually be lowered as protected areas increase.
People may believe that when new protected areas are created, there are more natural areas –- whereas the reality is that every day there are less.  This lowers public concerns about risks from biodiversity loss, decreasing pressure on politicians and weakening the power of the “protect” governance regime.
3.  Prioritizing protected area placement by proximity to active agricultural frontiers would make them more effective.

Targets should include both the desired Area under protection AND the absolute limits on Area under development through habitat conversion.

4.  Strengthening the forces that maintain and restore habitat (and oppose its development) is vital to halt biodiversity loss.

This means we must generally favor land-sharing as a conservation strategy rather than land-sparing.  The governance forces that drive land sparing don’t necessarily oppose the governance forces that drive forest clearance for development, so you still get net loss.
Hence, strengthening the relative power of land-sharing governance regimes (i.e. those that maintain traditional, sustainable land use, alternative sustainable land use, or restore degraded habitat) is likely, we argue, to have a greater long-term benefit for biodiversity conservation.

Unraveling how governance and power affect biodiversity conservation is a new frontier in conservation science -– but this paper makes an important start and shows where we need to focus our attention.


Will Australia have to kiss some species goodbye?

Goodbye, Gouldian Finch.  So long, Orange-bellied Parrot.  Fare thee well, Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.

And while we're at it, let's say arrivederci to New Zealand's Kakapo and Indonesia's Javan Rhino.

Bye-bye birdy?  A kaleidoscope of Gouldian Finches.

Bye-bye birdy?  A kaleidoscope of Gouldian Finches.

All are critically endangered species, balanced precariously on the edge of survival.  According to some of Australia's top ecologists, including ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, we might have to let them fall into the abyss.

The hotly debated issue of biological triage was the focus of ABC's Lateline TV show last night.  In it, Bradshaw and others argued that, given thin resources and too many endangered species, we may have to give up on some species altogether.

It's not a topic most biologists or conservationists want to think about, but Bradshaw and colleagues say it is time we had the debate. 

It's a tough issue.  Many endangered species have a coterie of dedicated people who've devoted years of their lives to rescuing them.  Such folks don't want to hear that it's all for naught.

Bradshaw has raised this issue before, in 2011, generating a mushroom-cloud of controversy that reverberated around the world

Whatever your views, given the rapidly changing state of the world, it's pretty clear this won't be the last time we'll be forced to confront this issue.


Press release: ALERT confronts Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has infuriated environmental scientists with his recent 'no more parks' vow.  In response, ALERT issued a press release today decrying the PM's ill-advised tack.

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

The press release highlights the need for more--not fewer--protected areas in critically threatened ecosystems in Australia, such as the imperiled Mountain Ash forests of Victoria

It also highlights the stunningly poor example that Australia is now setting internationally, via Abbott's actions. 

The press release is already garnering attention both in Australia and overseas.  See also the related blog on ConservationBytes.com by ALERT member Corey Bradshaw.


Deadly isolation: Tree-clearing may doom flying mammals

Isolation is a silent killer.  That's the conclusion of a study that assessed the effects of woodland clearing on squirrel gliders--the Australian equivalent of the flying squirrel.

Save a few trees for me...

Save a few trees for me...

Writing in the journal PLoS One, Ross Goldingay and colleagues found evidence of intense inbreeding in squirrel gliders in forest patches in Queensland that had been isolated by roads and other clearings around 30 years ago.

Although the squirrel gliders persisted in some forest patches, their genetic signatures indicated they were completely inbred.  Inbred animals often suffer a loss of vigor, health and breeding success, rendering their populations much more prone to local extinction.

Movements of squirrel gliders are evidently impeded once clearings exceed 50 meters in width, the study suggests. 

The findings underscore the importance of maintaining habitat connectivity for wildlife.  A failure to heed such lessons will doom many species to eventual extinction, the study concludes.



The mystery of Australia's small mammal declines

Across the top end of Australia, from Cape York to the Kimberly Mountains, populations of smaller marsupials and native rodents are collapsing.  What's going on?

Tapping into traditional knowledge to help solve a mystery (photo by Ian Morris)

Tapping into traditional knowledge to help solve a mystery (photo by Ian Morris)

Several studies in recent years have documented the declines.  A few have shown major changes in a single location, such as Kakadu National Park.  Others have compiled scattered information over a much broader area; one innovative study used interviews with Aboriginal communities to piece together evidence (find study here).

The bottom line: many species that used to be common have become vanishingly rare, or have geographic ranges that are collapsing. 

What is causing all this?  No one is sure.  Some suspect it could be severe overgrazing by livestock, especially during droughts.  During such times the vegetation can become badly damaged--as we're seeing at present in many areas

Others think altered fire regimes are the cause.  And yet others suspect predation by feral cats, with a possible role for lethal cane toads for certain predatory mammals.

Whatever the cause, this might be a new biodiversity crisis for the Land Down Under, which has already lost more native mammal species than any other continent.  

Conservation corridors: a hot topic

We live in an increasingly fragmented world, and that is posing serious problems for wildlife--especially in the face of rising climate change, which can create an imperative for species to move elsewhere.

A possible way to help counter the harmful effects of habitat fragmentation is conservation corridors--linkages between remnant habitats that have been called 'bandages for wounded landscapes'.

Landscape linkages--a conservation corridor in north Queensland, Australia.

Landscape linkages--a conservation corridor in north Queensland, Australia.

This week sees two important developments in corridor research.  The first is a feature by the leading environmental website Mongabay.com of Stuart Pimm's longstanding efforts to use corridors to reconnect fragmented habitats.  Pimm is a global conservation leader and ALERT member.

The second development is an unusually important paper in Nature Climate Change by Patrick Jantz and colleagues that identifies priority areas for conservation corridors in the tropics. The authors assessed thousands of potential corridors between tropical protected areas, and their potential both for aiding biodiversity and for protecting forest carbon stocks.

These are important efforts and show why conservation corridors are a hot topic in both environmental research and practice.