New Global Analysis Shows Value of Conservation

Convention on Biological Diversity Logo
Logo for the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity

The future of life on Earth is on the negotiating table in Nagoya, Japan as delegates from more than 190 countries grapple with carrying out the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Created at the Earth Summit in 1992, the Convention has set aggressive targets for cutting the rate of species extinctions and slowing habitat loss worldwide. Unfortunately, these 2010 targets not only have been missed, but the pace of biodiversity loss is getting worse. It is against this discouraging backdrop—as well as attempts in Nagoya to establish a new set of targets for 2020—that we must ask the question, “how much of a difference do our conservation efforts really make?”

A newly published global analysis, on which I am a co-author, demonstrates conclusively that the news would be even worse if not for conservation efforts already underway. “The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates,” published today online by the prestigious journal Science, considers the fate of more than 25,000 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians worldwide. Assessing the conservation status of each of these species has been a gargantuan task, carried out by a veritable army of more than 3,000 scientists around the globe.

Although the term “big science” usually is applied to such endeavors as atom smashers and sequencing the human genome, the global scientific collaboration that underpins the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species qualifies to be included in that category. Reflecting the vastness of this effort, this newly published paper includes more than 150 co-authors.

Based on our latest assessments of the condition of the world’s vertebrates—that is, animals with backbones—nearly one-fifth are classified as threatened, ranging from 13% of birds to 41% of amphibians.

Understanding the current conservation status of these species tells only part of the story, though.  To determine whether things are getting better or worse we must also have a way of detecting changes over time. Over the past few years my colleagues in the IUCN Red List Program have developed a means for analyzing trends in these species assessments — referred to as the Red List Index — to understand how well or poorly these species are doing.  We found that from 1980 to 2008 an average of 52 species each year moved one Red List category closer to extinction.

Have conservation efforts made any measurable difference in slowing these rates?

This is a difficult question to measure directly, since oftentimes conservation actions are necessary just to maintain a species at its current condition, rather than recover it sufficiently for it to move to a less threatened Red List category.

The short answer is “yes, conservation efforts have helped and it could have been much worse.” Of 928 species that shifted in Red List threat categories, 68 (or 7%) showed an improvement in condition, with all but four of these directly due to conservation actions. By comparing the observed changes in the Red List Index with the trends expected without these conservation-dependent improvements, we can then conservatively measure the effect that conservation efforts have on slowing the global decline in these species groups.

Poison Dart Frog Sitting on a Leaf (Credit: Flickr/MoleSon)
Poison Dart Frog Sitting on a Leaf (Credit: Flickr/MoleSon)

The  bottom line is that conservation actions can and do have a demonstrable effect on slowing the rate of global biodiversity loss—basically making a bad situation less bad.

Unfortunately, there is still a huge mismatch between what is needed and what is available for biodiversity conservation, both in terms of the scale of actions and investments, and where these actions  are taking place.

As delegates to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya attempt to conclude their work, they can take heart that although the indicators of biodiversity health are still moving in the wrong direction, conservation actions and investments can and do make a real and measurable difference. To meet the scale of the challenge, and have a hope of making good on whatever new 2020 targets for reducing biodiversity decline are adopted, the nation’s of the world will need to dramatically ramp up our levels of investment and actions.