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Protecting tropics could save half of species on brink, report says

In 2019, a landmark UN report revealed that nearly 1 million species face extinction due to human activities and climate change. 

A groundbreaking new study offers a solution to save more than half of these doomed species, while slowing climate breakdown: Conserve just 30 percent of tropical lands. 

The study, published in February in the journal Ecography, is the first to offer a comprehensive map of the most important natural areas to protect to reduce extinction risk, highlighting the immense value of tropical regions in Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. 

Conservation News spoke with the study’s lead author and senior climate change scientist at Conservation International, Lee Hannah, about the political and economic implications of this research — and what it could mean for the future of the planet’s wild animals.

Kiley Price: Why is climate change making species disappear? 

Senior climate change scientist at Conservation International, Lee Hannah
Lee Hannah: Every species has its own unique climatic tolerances and environments — which is why we can’t grow palm trees in New York City, for example. These tolerances were formed over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, so it is unlikely that they are going to change overnight. Therefore, when human activities accelerate climate change, species are going to try to follow those climates that are suitable for them rather than adapting to new ones. For many species, this requires moving upslope — but at a certain point, there will be nowhere left to go, which is what we call the “escalator to extinction.” 

Price: Where does your new research fit in?

Hannah: In this new study, we were looking to understand how species movements in response to climate change might affect our ability to conserve them. To do this, we modeled the potential movements of hundreds of thousands of species under different climate scenarios. Then, we combined those models with the known locations of several hundreds of thousands more species. This combination allowed us to determine the best regions to protect species both where they are now and where they might be in the future. 

Our results showed us that if we limit temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius while conserving just 30 percent of tropical land area, then we can cut species extinction risk in half. 

Price: Thirty percent doesn’t seem that high.

Hannah: Exactly! This study is the first to analyze extinction rates in the context of conservation and climate change, so we were shocked to find out that we could get such high levels of extinction reduction in such a small area, even as the climate changes. Part of the reason for that is because many of the world’s species are packed into tropical mountains — from the Amazon to East African montane forests. As these species move upslope in response to climate change, we will be able to conserve them in relatively compact areas by expanding or creating new conservation areas. 

Through these findings, we created a map of the most important tropical areas to protect across Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia to conserve biodiversity. Moving forward, countries can now use the tool we developed to zoom in on individual conservation areas or mountains to do a more detailed analysis and get an idea of the best conservation plan for different species that are on the move. 

Price: Why is it so important to protect all of these species? 

Hannah: One reason is that the wealth of species living in these tropical areas — what we call biological diversity, or biodiversity for short — holds critical genetic information, which could help us cure diseases, create new drugs, design climate-resilient crops and more. Every time we lose one of these species, we also lose some of that crucial information. Additionally, all of these species help to build thriving ecosystems, which provide a host of benefits to humans — from fresh water to food to fertile soil. Ecosystems weakened by the loss of biodiversity are less likely to deliver those services, especially given the ever-growing human population.

Biodiversity is also an essential part of tackling the climate crisis. Tropical forests around the world store about 25 percent of the world’s carbon but are vulnerable to deforestation if countries do not protect them. This research illustrates that part of the equation of protecting biodiversity is also part of the equation for getting climate change under control.

Price: So how do countries protect these critical places? 

Hannah: It’s really important to note that “conserving 30 percent of tropical land” isn’t just about creating national parks or protected areas (although that’s a good start for many places). There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that a government can implement to protect biodiversity while benefiting from the land, including community conservancies, indigenous-managed conservation areas and land-use zoning. 

For example, in western Angola in Southern Africa, some of the priority areas for avoiding extinctions due to climate change fall into areas used by local farmers.  In those areas, we need to figure out how to keep rare birds and plants in landscapes used by small-scale farmers.  That’s a great conservation idea, but it’s not a national park.

The most important thing to do is figure out which conservation system is the best option for a local setting based on social environments, land uses, development needs, the species you are trying to protect and more. 

Price: Why aren’t governments already doing this? 

Hannah: Up until our results, we haven’t known the places most important to conserve to avoid extinctions due to climate change.  But now we know, so we can act. Governments can build their own plans on our results, we’ve built online tools and are doing trainings to facilitate this.  

Throughout many parts of the world, the pace of development is intensifying, and unsustainable agricultural plantations are on the uptick. As species move in response to climate change, they may run into these areas, which is why it is so important to expand protected areas and prevent development from spreading into the critical tropical lands highlighted in our map. I don’t see this as a roadblock, but rather an opportunity to get conservation in the right places for a changing climate — and fast.

Price: What happens next?

Hannah: Many scientists are referring to 2020 as the “Super Year for Nature” and existing research shows we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction if we do not commit to increased conservation efforts. 

These findings come at a critical time as world leaders convene in Rome, Italy this week to continue negotiations to protect plant and wildlife species ahead of the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity coming up in October in Kunming, China. The goals and targets to be set ahead of the COP will serve as an important road map guiding conservation efforts for the next 10 years – the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and put biodiversity first.  

The good news is that we now have science to guide actionable solutions to this crisis. If we collectively prioritize key areas for conservation, we can preserve biodiversity hotspots and slow global warming at the same time. Although it will take careful land planning, reaching this goal is extremely achievable — and crucial for the future of all life on Earth.

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