This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth 3.0: Solutions for Sustainable Progress
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Is Focusing on "Hot Spots" the Key to Preserving Biodiversity?

Preserving biodiversity in rich habitats is good. But global warming and other new threats may call for a new strategy

Hotspots were his solution: If you had limited resources and wanted to preserve the maximum number of species, Myers reasoned, you should concentrate on regions that had the most “endemic” species—species that were not found elsewhere—and that were losing them fastest. In his 1988 paper Myers identified 10 such hotspots, all of them centered on tropical forests. Two years later he added eight more to the list, including four regions with Mediterranean climates—subtropical grasslands that were under intense pressure from humans.

The hotspot concept caught on almost immediately. From 1990 on the Mac­Arthur Foundation supported hotspot preservation to the tune of $15 million a year. Later the idea was adopted by CI, which had initially been formed by defectors from the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. Those older organizations had also been concerned with preventing extinctions, but CI made the preservation of global biodiversity—that is, the total number of species—its main focus. Working with Myers, it refined his concept, defining a hotspot as a region that had at least 1,500 species of endemic plants (0.5 percent of the world’s total) and that had lost at least 70 percent of its original vegetation. Hotspots brought a welcome rigor to conservation biology, says Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy. “There was a sense before that conservation was ad hoc—that it was about this pretty place or that charismatic animal. The good thing about hotspots is that they were the beginning of being analytical.”

Above all, hotspots made sense to the World Bank and to the foundations that have become increasingly important supporters of conservation work. Even people in the business of healing the world’s pain do not like feeling they are pouring money down a bottomless hole. Hotspots divided a vast and intractable problem into more manageable parts, with definable targets, and that made foundation managers want to sign checks. Ask Myers today, 20 years after he hatched his simple little idea, which of its impacts he is proudest of, and he says this: “The mobilizing of $850 million.” It is indeed an astonishing sum. CI, which has received much of it into its Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, had fewer than 100 employees in 1990; it now has about 900 in locations all over the world. Recently it increased the number of hot­spots to 34. “If our number-one priority is to save as many species as possible, I don’t see how you can do much better than hotspots,” Myers says.

Focusing Aid and Attention
Hotspots, as Myers and CI define them, are large regions—Central America is one, for instance, as is Madagascar. Within those regions, various conservation strategies are possible, including captive breeding programs for particular species. But because habitat loss is generally the gravest threat, the most obvious strategy is to designate smaller, even hotter spots within those regions as “protected areas.” Beside its “Red List” of threatened species, the IUCN also maintains, along with the United Nations, a list of protected areas. They number over 100,000 and cover 11.5 percent of the earth’s land surface.

But many, especially in the poorer tropical countries, are what conservationists call “paper parks”—parks in name only. A few years ago Ana Rodrigues of CI and her colleagues compared the ranges of 11,633 species of terrestrial vertebrates with the geographic coverage of the protected areas. They found that a minimum of more than 12 percent of vertebrates—­1,483 species, including 833 listed as threatened by the IUCN—fell into gaps between the parks and thus had no protection at all. Mammals fared the best, amphibians the worst, presumably because people care more about mammals and because amphibians tend to have smaller ranges that are less likely to overlap with a park.

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