The challenges of biodiversity conservation

In our last critical thinking session for this semester we discussed the challenges to biodiversity conservation and the tools that might help us to overcome them. We built upon knowledge gathered from the Conservation Science course and decided to focus on the practical sides of conservation.

Firstly, we explored the role of conservation scientists in the modern world. We had all watched a presentation by Dr. Richard Fuller, of the University of Queensland, in preparation for our discussion. Dr. Fuller talked about how as scientists we have a responsibility to make sure our findings have real world implications, that conservation science informs policies, urban planning and future developments. We brought up the importance of avoiding bias and acknowledged that there is a need for a mediator between academics and policy makers. Nevertheless, we agreed that conservation scientists should collaborate with local people and government officials to offer practical solutions to biodiversity issues. This work, however, involves negotiation, trade-offs and consideration of ecological, social and economic factors. Making decisions in such a multidisciplinary context will benefit from a set framework, which takes into account all aforementioned factors and outlines the scenario which best answers to them.


Image source – University of Queensland


One such product, developed at the University of Queensland, is MARXAN. MARXAN is a decision-making software which aims to give the best solution to the ‘minimum set problem’ – how do we achieve a certain biodiversity target in the most-cost effective manner. It can be used to highlight areas of high biodiversity value for future designation as protected areas, as well as evaluation of already existing protected area networks. The program uses planning units – a grid of 1x1km squares. The following information is inputted for each planning unit – land use type, species distributions and economic cost of land. We can then select a conservation target (e.g. protecting 25% of the distribution of amphibian species in Tasmania) and the result from running the software is a selection of planning units which meet this criterion for the smallest cost.

Once we were familiarised with how MARXAN works, we discussed the value of this product for the advance of conservation science. Although one can argue that economic cost should not be part of this analysis and biodiversity should be protected regardless of the cost, we all agreed that MARXAN is definitely a step in the right direction. We live in a finite word, where both natural and monetary resources are limited, and using MARXAN helps optimise protected area networks. The only other shortcoming we found was that it uses a proxy measure, boundary length modifier, to assess connectivity. Connectivity between protected areas is key for maintaining viable populations in the long-term. Although the boundary length modifier addresses this issue, we are eager to see if the new version of MARXAN will offer an improved solution.

MARXAN is designed to follow the principles of systematic conservation planning, known as CARE principles.

Comprehensive (Connected) – every type of ecosystem is protected and there is connectivity between the protected areas
Adequate – the conservation target we have chosen is adequate for maintaining ecosystem functionality and integrity
Representative – there is enough of every kind of biodiversity protected, e.g. insurance policy against fires and catastrophic events
Efficient – achieves the above targets for the least amount of money

Discussing efficiency and evaluation of protected areas continued with a critical look at a paper titled ‘Replacing underperforming protected areas achieves better conservation outcomes’ by Fuller et al. (2010). Conservation targets tend to revolve around designating more protected areas and the widely-accepted solution to most biodiversity problems is the expansion of protected area networks. Protecting habitat is seen as a surrogate for protecting biodiversity. The paper we read offers an alternative approach and stresses the importance of evaluation. Although having 13% of the Earth’s land surface under some sort of protection is one of the biggest successes of conservation, it is important to also monitor protected areas. Are they actually protecting biodiversity? Are the populations within them stable? As shown by Fuller et al. (2010) protected areas are not always successful and in that case, is it worth maintaining them as such? Degazetting protected areas has to be done with extreme caution and it is not yet certain for how long we need to monitor them before deciding they are not successful surrogates of biodiversity.

Tasmanian Tree Frog

The Tasmanian tree frog (Litoria burrowsae) is endemic to Tasmania and its populations are declining due to a wide-spread disease. Establishing a protected area network that follows the CARE principles can help boost this species’ resilience. Image source – Wild Side Australia

We all agreed on the importance of evaluation and on using realistic targets. We are studying ecology because we love nature, and we often have an intrinsic desire to protect all of it. This is rarely possible in today’s world of global urbanisation and rapid population growth. For example, if all of the populations of amphibians in Tasmania are to be protected, 99% of the state’s land has to be set aside for conservation. This is obviously not a realistic target, and instead, we ought to focus more on a target that allows humans and nature to co-exist.

Assessing the performance of protected areas is especially important as the effects of climate change are predicted to become more pronounced. Species will shift their ranges, which might place their populations outside of the protected area boundaries. We talked about examples from around the world, including African national parks, of misplacing protected areas. This is indeed a case of ‘so close, yet so far’ – Lisa told us about lions roaming right outside of the fences of the park that was put in place to protect them.

In this session of critical thinking, we set out to discuss how we move forward in conservation. We decided that translating scientific knowledge into real life actions is paramount for effective conservation. This process can be further facilitated by software such as MARXAN, which considers ecological, social and economic factors. Conservation science emerged as a ‘crisis discipline’ and there is a long path ahead before the crisis is averted. It is important to evaluate our actions at each step of the way, as a means to maximise benefit for both people and environment.

By Gergana

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