Jun 2, 2022 - Science

How to make space for species

Illustration of a giant rhino facing a tiny earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The plummet in the planet's biodiversity could be slowed by protecting and expanding key areas animals inhabit and connecting them so species can move freely. Two studies published today lay out ways to make that space.

The big picture: There's wide acknowledgment the future of Earth's biodiversity — which supports the health and well-being of the species H. sapiens — hinges on protecting more of the planet. But how much land should be conserved — and where — is debated by scientists, governments, businesses and organizations.

Where it stands: Today, 16.6% of Earth's land and inland water ecosystems are protected, per one 2020 estimate.

  • The draft targets that will be discussed at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) later this year include protecting 30% of land and seas around the world by 2030 and reducing the rate of extinctions by 90% by 2050.
  • It also prioritizes connecting protected lands so animals can move to mate and adapt to changes in their environment.
  • Scientists go about identifying which land is important for biodiversity by looking at the combination of where the most species — or the most threatened species or breeding grounds — are, where intact places can still be saved from future damage, and other factors.

What's new: Combining data about existing protected areas, land that hasn't been disturbed and the geographical distribution of more than 35,000 species, a new estimate concludes at least 44% of Earth's land — about 25 million square miles — needs more protection to stop the loss of today's biodiversity.

  • About 70% of this area is currently protected or intact but farming, mining and other intensive uses are imminent threats, especially in countries with developing economies, according to a study published today in the journal Science.
  • An additional 4.8 million square miles of land would need to be conserved to meet the biodiversity targets.

Context: The study is one of many global priority maps with varying estimates for how much land should be conserved, which depend in part on the data and specific objectives, says Megan Evans, who studies environmental policy at the University of New South Wales in Australia and wasn't involved in the research.

  • She has questioned the value of global priority maps given conservation decisions are largely made on the ground but others say both global and local scale studies are important because ecology happens across scales.

A second study looks at another part of the conservation equation: connectivity between areas.

  • Researchers used data about mammal movements and how humans use different areas of land to predict where there would be concentrated flows of medium and large mammals.
  • They found areas — especially in eastern Europe and Africa — that could be conserved to connect existing protected land.
  • Many of those areas are near places heavily used by humans, creating "pinch points," says Angela Brennan, a conservation scientist at the University of British Columbia and a World Wildlife Fund fellow who is a co-author of the study. That suggests "mitigating the human footprint may improve connectivity more than adding new [protected areas], although both strategies together maximize benefits," the team wrote today in Science.

But, but, but ... Approximately 1.8 billion people live in areas that would need to be conserved to achieve conservation goals, the researchers of the first study report.

  • "So the potential impacts if these schemes go wrong is enormous," says Chris Sandbrook, a conservation social scientist at the University of Cambridge and a co-author of the study. "Conservation has a history of setting up conserved areas in ways that are harmful to local residents." They have been displaced — physically or economically — and have lost access to culturally important sites and land.
  • On the flip side, when done well, conservation initiatives "could help to support the recognition of the land rights of Indigenous people and local residents. This would enable them to resist the advances of things like industrial farming and mining, ultimately helping both people and biodiversity conservation."
  • "We need much more research to understand where and how to thread the needle so that biodiversity can be conserved at scale while also avoiding harm to people and protecting human rights," Sandbrook says.

What to watch: The participation of Indigenous peoples in creating global conservation goals is included in the draft framework for COP15 and increasingly in research papers.

  • "The big question is whether this is having much impact on the ground," Sandbrook says.
  • And the areas being targeted for protection are "still highly influenced by the data inputs used and decisions made by the authors of these scientific studies," Evans says. "One could argue the priorities are that of the scientists doing the science."
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