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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Hot moments for biodiversity conservation

Concerns about how to preserve biodiversity are increasing as the synergistic forces of land use and climate change, overexploitation, invasions, and trophic meltdown are amplifying the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. Given these formidable threats and limited conservation funding, protecting “everything everywhere” does not appear to be a helpful goal. A central issue in conservation biology is therefore how to prioritize conservation efforts so that they are most effective.

Much attention has been paid to the question where conservation efforts should be focused. This has resulted in a range of priority maps and exciting methodological developments in the field of conservation planning and spatial conservation prioritization. Indeed, global conservation efforts have also increasingly focused on hotspots of biodiversity.

A new paper by Volker C. Radeloff and coauthors in the journal Conservation Letters highlights that conservationists should also ask when conservation action is likely to be most effective. They analyzed how the world’s network of protected areas has grown over time, both globally and for those 35 countries that contained at least 1% of either the total count or the total area protected globally. What they found is that for many countries brief periods in which the protected area network grew rapidly exist, just like there seem to be long periods of relative stability where the protected area networks did not expand substantially. For example, 44% of all countries protected more than half of their total protected area in one year, and 61% did so in one 5-year period. Thus, there is strong evidence for critical periods where conservation action is much more likely to be implemented than normally, and the authors term such periods as ‘hot moments’ for conservation.

Hot moments often coincided with societal upheaval such as the collapse of the USSR or the end of colonialism. A striking example was the creation of a full half of Germany’s 14 National Parks during the very last meeting of the East German cabinet in September of 1990, less than three weeks before the dissolution of East Germany and its reunification with Western Germany.  A small group of conservationists led by Michael Succow created protected area plans and assured their enactment, resulting in the protection of about 7% of East Germany.  Without their efforts a critical hot moment in German conservation would have been missed.

Figure 1. Trend in the total protected area coverage of Germany. The re-unification of West and East Germany resulted in a unique opportunity for enlarging Germany’s protected areas systems, leading to establishment of even new national parks.

However, not just instances of regime collapse spurred hot moments – they were catalyzed by changes in governments and administrations as well. In the United States, 58% of the area that is protected today was set aside in a single year.  President Carter’s loss of the election to Ronald Reagan in November of 1980, prompted Carter to sign the “Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act” protecting 321,900 km².  Since then, the United States’ government has established few terrestrial protected areas.

For conservation groups and agencies, the results of Radeloff and his colleagues highlight the need to consider the timing of their conservation actions. There are pronounced hot moments for conservation – but also decades-long periods of few conservation gains, during which efforts may be of little consequence. How can conservation organization best prepare for hot moments? While it will be hard to predict events such as the collapse of socialism, changes in governments, or the uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, systematic monitoring of the political climate in each country could ensure that hot moments are not missed. When a country is experiencing a hot moment, the key will be to support in-country conservationists. Radeloff et al suggest that one key factor is though dedicated, tenacious, in-country conservationists, who are ready to act when a hot moment arises. Building capacity and training conservation leaders may ultimately be the best long-term investment.

Radeloff, V. C., Beaudry, F. C., Brooks, T. M., Butsic, V., Dubinin, M., Kuemmerle, T., and Pidgeon, A. M. (2012): Hot moments for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Letters, in press (DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00290.x)

Communicated by Prof. Dr. Tobias Kuemmerle, Biogeography and Conservation Biology
Geography Department | Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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