By Katia Sánchez Ortiz
Biodiversity loss cannot be overlooked; current extinction rates appear to be a thousand times higher than background rates4 and different taxonomic groups keep moving rapidly towards increased extinction risk5 (Fig. 1). This topic concerns us all; at present we frequently come across it, along with the issue of conservation strategies; however, do we really understand the meaning and scope of “biodiversity” and “conservation”? These topics are now so recurrent that we rarely think about elucidating these concepts, consequently, it seems improbable to understand conservation planning without this basis.
Foundations first: Biodiversity concept refers to the entire biological hierarchy, meaning from molecules to ecosystems. Biodiversity “includes entities recognizable at each level (genes, taxa, communities, etc.) and the interactions between them (nutrient and energy cycling, predation, competition, mutation, and adaptation, etc.)”1.
Surprisingly, “conservation” remains as an ambiguous concept2. How can a supposedly common idea involve so much conflicts? Dictionaries define “conservation” as “preservation”, a concept that suggests stasis, but we surely can’t relate our ever changing world to this idea. Sandra Knapp brilliantly untangles this conflict in a Nature publication, by stating: “Preserving nature is not about stasis, but about maintaining the exciting, ever-evolving variety of life on Earth”2.
Conservation strategies need to focus on keeping options alive and safeguarding life variety including its whole hierarchy. Nevertheless, trying to consider all life variation is unrealistic if we keep in mind that we are still incapable of achieving an accurate estimate of Earth species number and fully understanding ecological processes. So how could we ever measure total biodiversity to gain an idea of what we need to conserve? This lack of information is the reason why conservation strategies usually focus on a single component of biodiversity, i.e.: number of species.
Surely we cannot think about protecting all elements that contribute to biodiversity because that would mean all the places and species on Earth1, so in order to develop real-world conservation strategies, it is necessary to prioritize.
Most commonly, conservation targets are species and habitats, however, regardless of the hierarchy, choosing what needs to be prioritized for conservation is a daunting task. In addition, we cannot deny that this selection process has been frequently developed under unsubstantiated criterions, rather than under scientific basis.
Theories about what should be prioritized vary widely; some projects seek to protect endangered or endemic species, other “EDGE” species, while broader ecological approaches suggest to focus on “umbrella” species. “Hotspots” have also drawn a lot of attention; and of course, “charismatic” species are also very popular among conservation programs.
In order to prioritize with stronger scientific basis, different strategies are being developed; for example, methods for measuring biodiversity of different areas are attempting to gain more accuracy and to become more inclusive with the whole biological hierarchy.
Margules et al. (2002), summarize a procedure for identifying priority areas for conservation. According to them, available tools for this process fall into two different classes: a) Methods for acquiring suitable data sets and b) Methods for using these data sets. Data sets consist in areas and features; these features are “surrogates” which help for biodiversity measurement and they may be: taxa (species, genera or families), species assemblages (communities, associations, habitat types) and environmental classes or variables. This information is usually arranged in areas × features matrix for further evaluation (Fig. 2).
It is still not possible to choose one surrogate as better than the others, considering that none of them adequately represents biodiversity as a whole. Certainly, a combination of surrogates would be more applicable and necessary to select biodiversity priority areas considering that in most cases, data comes from different sources1.
Once suitable data is ready, the process of identifying priority areas begins. Selected areas should include all of the biodiversity surrogates in the data set and represent biodiversity of the region they are situated. Different selection methods have been developed to promote efficiency in priority setting; in general, they are based on the following principles: a) Preference should be given to vulnerable areas, b) Priority areas should complement one another in terms of the features they contain (surrogates), c) Preference should be given to areas with unique features (considered irreplaceable)1.
Despite of these outstanding efforts to improve conservation strategies, it is undeniable that the main factor that has defined most of the formal conservation programs is human opportunism. For example, selection of reserves has been ad hoc, favoring areas that are least valuable for commercial uses, human habitation or which have high recreational values3.How could we ever achieve the main purpose of biological conservation if we continue developing strategies which only pursue to maintain our life style and increase our consumption of the Earth’s resources?
Opportunism has always been the nemesis of conservation initiatives, however, it is also a critical factor that cannot be ignored. At present, conservation programs cannot depend purely on scientific basis to achieve successful results; real-world conservation planning needs a broader vision which includes a human-centered approach, such as social, economic and politic factors 3.
Certainly there are a lot of arguments against this proposal, however isn’t it worth trying to turn this negative side into a possible advantage to develop successful conservation strategies? Considering how our world runs now, how else could we achieve support from other sectors besides researchers and sympathizers? Now is time for interdisciplinary approaches to develop bridges between science and its supposed opponents to achieve truly applicable proposals.
Maybe we are still incapable of developing conservation strategies which encompass a truly meaningful representation of biodiversity, and maybe we still haven’t found a way to reconcile human interests with nature conservation. However, we cannot ignore the fact that we are facing unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss, which will bring severe consequences not only for other species but for human circumstances.The world’s current state calls for truly efficient measures and greater efforts to change our situation, our work in this field has just started.
1. Margules CR, Pressey RL, Williams PH (2002) Representing biodiversity: data and procedures for identifying priority areas for conservation. Journal of Biosciences 27: 309–326
2. Knapp S (2003) Dynamic diversity. Nature 422: 475
3. Knight, A. T., and R. M. Cowling. 2007. Embracing opportunism in the selection of priority conservation areas. Conservation Biology 21: 1124–1126
4. Pimm SL, Russell GJ, Gittleman JL, Brooks TM (1995) The future of biodiversity. Science 269: 347-350
5. IUCN 2013. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. . Downloaded on 3 December 2013