The European reserve network “Natura 2000” is one of the most important and largest conservation networks worldwide. Its legal basis, the “Habitats Directive” is recognized as one of the strongest legal tools in nature conservation. Nevertheless, the European Union recently acknowledged that its target to “halt biodiversity loss by 2010” has been missed. We outline four major problems in the implementation of the Habitats Directive, which we presume will prevent the EU again from reaching its 2020 “zero extinction target”.
First of all, the species lists of the annexes need to be based upon comprehensive scientific knowledge rather than on tradition. The current species lists have mainly been “inherited” from the annex of the Berne Convention and include many taxa which are not currently threatened according to the IUCN Red List. Contrarily, many highly threatened taxa, namely invertebrates, are not covered by the Habitats Directive and will undoubtedly be lost without adopting specific conservation measures as these species are often endemic to very small unprotected ranges. In order to improve on this situation, our overall knowledge on European biodiversity needs to increase substantially. This entails more explorative research as well as red list assessments of a maximum number of European species . Only then can conservation focus on those species with the highest extinction risk. This also requires regular updates of the annexes of the Habitats Directive, following scientific rigor rather than political consensus.
Second, strategic conservation plans need to be compiled for highly threatened species and adaptive management plans need to be implemented in each reserve. Many “Special Areas of Conservation” (SACs) are currently managed inadequately or are not managed at all. We suggest that adaptive management plans should be adopted as a mandatory assignment in the Habitats Directive. They need to be compiled, implemented and surveilled at the local level, either by governmental institutions or nongovernmental organizations. As management requires substantial financial resources, particularly the implementation of sustainable land use, we suggest to integrate and harmonize budgets from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and other projects (RDP, EMFF, LIFE+).
Third, we propose the development of an improved “on-ground” monitoring system, focusing on population trends of priority species with immediate feedback to management plans and red list assessments. The monitoring currently in place lacks standardization across countries, taxon-specific standards, coherent training of the monitoring staff and sufficient budget.
Fourth, the EU needs to increase its efforts to reach a European-wide societal consensus on the need for these conservation measures. Although the EU has obliged itself to reach the Aichi Targets and has agreed upon its own 2020 biodiversity target, national and regional interests often compromise an EU wide consensus. This consensus can only be reached by increasing conservation education and outreach. In this context, ethical arguments may play a more important role than economic ones as ethical considerations are the foundation of nature conservation and even the CBD values biodiversity per se. Instead of promoting potential economic benefits due to the reserve network (which finally may not hold true), it will be important to take concerns of local stakeholders seriously and provide an adequate system to minimize and compensate for economic costs.
In order to be successful, implementing our revised strategy (Fig. 1) will require substantial financial resources for both obtaining the necessary information (i.e., data acquisition for prioritizing) and practical implementation of conservation action.