This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth 3.0: Solutions for Sustainable Progress

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

Thus, a large gap exists between conservation need and conservation resources: compared with what it would take to prevent the mass extinction that is now under way, $850 million spread over many years is actually a tiny sum. People such as John Watkin, an ecologist who is also a grant director for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, feel that gap acutely. “I’m a huge advocate of the hotspots approach,” he said recently. He was speaking on his cell phone, stuck in what he said was “the longest traffic jam in my life,” on a bus that was taking him from Arusha, Tanzania, to Nairobi, Kenya. Hotspots, such as the Eastern Arc Mountains of those two countries, are not wilderness areas; on the contrary they are areas that are being crushed by a needy humanity. “When I first joined [Conservation International], I was very skeptical of hotspots,” Watkin went on. “I’ve been turned around by looking at the financial resources. Everybody has to draw a line in the sand somewhere.”

Biodiversity hotspots channel resources to places that need it most, Watkin observed—not only away from the temperate-latitude industrial countries, which are richer in cash than in creatures, but away from “the Serengeti and the other established reserves that have been popularized by research and tourism.” At the northern end of the Eastern Arc Mountains, for instance, CI is working to protect the cloud forests of the Taita Hills. Ninety-eight percent of the forest has been cut down, mostly in the past 40 years, to make way for agriculture; a little more than 1,000 acres are left, a dozen small islands in a sea of farmland and exotic tree plantations. No lions, elephants or giraffes live in the Taita Hills; there are not even gorillas, but there are three species of bird that live only in those beleaguered islands. Saving those birds means saving what is left of the forests.

Saving the Picassos
In that sense, the forest islands are irreplaceable—which is the essential feature of hotspots. The concrete criteria for choosing hotspots are just convenient ways of measuring irreplaceability and threat, Hoffmann says, and they work. Threatened vertebrate species may be falling freely through the gaps in the protected-area network, but three quarters of such species are found in hotspots and nowhere else on the earth—indicating that hotspots are good places to protect more land and in general to focus efforts at saving vertebrates as well as plants. “We believe everything can be saved,” Hoffmann says. “It’s about where you go first. If we fail in the hot­spots, half of biodiversity is gone. Finished.”

The fear of that finality is something that drives most conservation biologists, including some who are critical of the hotspot approach. “There is nothing as bad as losing species,” says Walter Jetz, an ecologist at the University of California, San Diego. “They are unique biological entities, with unique evolutionary histories and a set of functions we have only partly understood.” People will rush back into burning houses to retrieve family photographs and heirlooms; something like that emotion stirs in the hearts of conservation biologists when they contemplate the irreversible loss that is extinction—although Jetz compares species to Picassos, not snap­­shots. Jetz grew up in Bavaria, saw how much money was spent there conserving relatively little biodiversity, then plunged as a young scientist into the teeming tropics of central Africa. He wholeheartedly endorses the transfer of conservation resources from North to South.

But Central Africa is a case in point: it is not on the hotspot list, because it is still in relatively good shape. In revising its list, CI also created a parallel list of five “wilderness areas,” including the Congo Basin, but it devotes far fewer resources to them. Conservation efforts in general tend to focus on areas that have suffered heavy human impact in the past—but those areas, Jetz and his graduate student Tien Ming Lee concluded in a study published this year, often are not the areas projected to suffer the heaviest impacts in the future. Central Africa, for instance, still retains most of its original forest, but in recent decades industrial logging concessions have been granted to more than 30 percent of it, and only 12 percent is protected. “That’s potentially a hotspot for conservation,” Jetz says. “Future challenges to conservation may not have much to do with the past.”

This article was originally published with the title "Are Hotspots the Key to Conservation."

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