May 25, 2017

Much more of the planet's biodiversity could be protected with a little more land

Cai Tjeenk Willink / Wikipedia

If we strategically expand protected areas on Earth just 5% and focus on birds and mammals with a more diverse evolutionary history, the range of species and places that can be preserved would be triple that of current conservation efforts, a new study in Nature finds.

The context: Scientists have warned for years that iconic species like giraffes, mountain gorillas, African elephants and rhinos are under assault from a combination of land use, poaching and climate impacts, and face extinction in the wild in the next 20 years.

Why it's needed: Studies have shown that half of all species are now experiencing "local extinctions" and that protected spaces are essential to maintain some semblance of biodiversity in the 21st century. For this reason, governments have established spaces, but they tend to cluster in "hot spots" where the sheer number of species is higher.

The science behind the 5%: The authors analyzed about 15,000 species of birds and mammals based on their quantity, how related species are to one another, and their specific traits that are linked to how they interact with their environment (eat, nest, etc.). They found current protected areas only cover about 1/4 of species diversity. They then created an algorithm to expand that number and found 5% more land in the right places would safeguard triple the amount of diversity.

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