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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

Especially when global warming enters the equation: no one really knows what to do about it. In mapping out the future high-impact areas, Jetz and Lee considered the effects of climate change on vegetation but not its effects on the ranges of animals, because too little is known about that. A study published in Nature in 2004, however, predicted that by 2050 between 15 and 37 percent of the species on the earth might be “committed to extinction” as a result of climate change alone. Those alarming numbers were contested—but not the basic reality that no area on the earth can be completely protected anymore. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels warms the planet everywhere, and it will change habitats everywhere, including ones we are not destroying in a more direct way.

That doesn’t mean stopping the destruction isn’t a good idea, of course—it is, not only because it protects habitats but because it curbs the deforestation that is itself a huge source of CO2. Expanding the focus of conservation beyond hotspots, however, does mean that the entire rationale behind parks and other protected areas is going to need to be rethought for a warming world. “Unless you worry some about the area between the reserves, species won’t be able to move,” Kareiva says. The Nature Conservancy has been focusing much of its efforts lately on creating migration corridors. “Thinking only about parks leads people to pay not enough attention to the rest of the world,” he adds.

“Protected areas are just a tool, not a goal,” says Luigi Boitani, a biologist at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” who has spent decades studying the wolves and bears of Italy. He participated with Rodrigues in the analysis of gaps in the existing protected area network, and he thinks the explicit purpose of such reserves should be to preserve biodiversity. But reserves are not the final answer, he says: “By setting aside 10 percent of the world, we are far from saving the world. Protected areas are useless if we don’t find a broad agreement between humans and nature.

“We have wolves 20 minutes from the Coliseum,” he goes on. “Bears an hour from downtown Rome. I must believe in coexistence.” If the carnivores are spreading once again in Italy, he says, it’s not because they are being protected in parks—it’s because the government compensates farmers for lost livestock, subsidizes guard dogs and electric fences, and in general encourages Italians to live alongside the beasts, not shoot them.

Warming Up to Coldspots
Coexistence between humans and nature can be encouraged in biodiversity hot­spots, too. In the Taita Hills, Watkin and Conservation International are trying not so much to create forest reserves as to get people to respect reserves that already exist. To that end, they are involving the local population in the conservation strategy, and they are funding projects designed, as Watkin puts it, “to provide very realistic alternatives to chopping down the forest and making charcoal.” Farming butterflies or indigenous silkworms, for instance: both can be done without en­croaching further on the cloud forest, and both have become significant moneymakers for the Taita Hills.

Much good conservation work has been done and continues to be done as a re­­sult of the hotspot approach; that $850 million has been put to good use. Yet the same critique Kareiva and Boitani direct at parks applies, on a larger scale, to hot­spots: that they lead people to not pay enough attention to the rest of the world—to the “coldspots,” as Kareiva calls them. Hotspots are hot because they are rich in endemic species and because Myers and CI define the top priority as preserving the maximum number of species on the whole planet.

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