World’s most irreplaceable wildlife areas identified

Laysan Duck on Midway Atoll, Hawai'i, USA: an irreplacable bird in an irreplaceable habitat. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr (commons.wikimedia.org).
Laysan Duck on Midway Atoll, Hawai'i, USA: an irreplacable bird in an irreplaceable habitat. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr (commons.wikimedia.org).
A scientific study has identified the protected areas most critical to preventing the extinctions of the world’s rarest mammals, birds and amphibians.

Resulting from an international collaboration including BirdLife International, the new analysis provides practical advice for improving protected areas for conserving global biodiversity. Published in the latest edition of international journal Science, the study calculates the ‘irreplaceability’ of individual protected areas, based on data on 173,000 terrestrial protected areas and assessments of 21,500 species on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The analysis compares the contribution each protected area makes to the long-term survival of species.

A total of 78 sites (comprising 137 protected areas in 34 countries) have been identified as exceptionally irreplaceable. Together, they harbour the majority of the populations of more than 600 birds, amphibians, and mammals, half of which are globally threatened.

In many cases these areas protect species that cannot be found anywhere else, such as the Critically Endangered Laysan Duck, endemic to the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, USA, and the 13 species of amphibians restricted to Canaima NP in Venezuela. Many of these irreplaceable areas are already designated as being of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ by UNESCO in their World Heritage Convention. These locations include Ecuador’s famed Gala´pagos Islands, Peru’s Manu´ NP and India’s Western Ghats.

However, half of the land covered by these areas does not have World Heritage recognition. This includes for example Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains NP, Cuba’s Cie´naga de Zapata Wetland of International Importance, and – the most irreplaceable site in the world for threatened species – Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural NP.

Unlike previous assessments that focused on increasing the number of protected sites, this study highlights the need for, and provides guidance for, improving the often insufficient management of the existing protected areas.

Saout, S L, Hoffmann, M, Shi, Y, Hughes, A, Bernard, C, Brooks, T M, Bertzky, B, Butchart, S H M,  Stuart, S N, Badman, T, and Rodrigues, A S L. 2013. Protected Areas and Effective Biodiversity Conservation. Science 342: 803 DOI: 10.1126/science.1239268.