IUCN Study Pinpoints World’s Most ‘Irreplaceable’ Protected Areas

Study pinpoints world's most irreplaceable protected areas

A new research study has sought to identify the most ‘irreplaceable’ protected environments dotted across the globe, home to some of the world’s most endangered species, ranging from mammals to amphibians.

The findings were generated after an international team of eminent scientists convened, in a bid to provide knowledge of practical benefit, which, it is hoped, might shape future environmental conservation efforts and policy.

The study was published in the latest issue of the journal Science, and used data from 173,000 terrestrial protected regions, as well as endangerment assessments of over 21,000 species that fell on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Ultimately, in drawing their conclusions, the team determined the contribution that each protected region offered to the long-term continuation of each investigated species.

All in all, the international group state there to be 78 sites that are “exceptionally irreplaceable,” encompassing 137 protected areas across a total of 34 separate countries. These countries are alleged to boast over 600 mammals, amphibians and birds; half of these creatures are globally threatened, and appear on the IUCN’s Red List.

Examples of Irreplaceable Hotspots

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention has already categorized many of these regions as being of “Outstanding Universal Value.” One such location is the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador, from which Charles Darwin famously studied a number of endemic species, ultimately contributing towards his theory of evolution.

During the late 1950s, the IUCN and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sent a number of expeditionary teams to investigate the local

Galapagos tortoise habitat destroyed by foreign animals
The habitat of Galapagos tortoises were destroyed by introduction of non-native animals

flora and fauna. In 1959, however, the Ecuadorian government took their conservation efforts to unprecedented levels, proclaiming over 97 percent of the archipelago’s land a national park. During 1986, this was taken a step further, with approximately 27,000 square miles of ocean around the perimeter of the islands being declared a marine reserve, thereby protecting these regions from fishing and development.

The Galápagos Islands were placed under immense threat from goats and cattle – animals that were artificially introduced into the environment; these creatures then rapidly reproduced and spread throughout the area, unchecked by natural predation. Meanwhile, non-native pigs, cats and dogs have played a part in killing tortoises, turtles and iguanas and destroying their habitats.

Recent causes for concern center around illegal fishing, tourism and a boom in the local population.

Another example is the Manú National Park, located in the southern orient of Peru, which is run by the National Natural Resources Institute. The area has restrictions placed upon human habitation, tourism, hunting and logging practices, and aims to preserve over two million hectares of ecologically diverse lands, ranging from the cloud forests to the lowland tropical rainforests.

Manu National Park
Map of the Manú National Park

The Manú National Park was classified as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1977, as it remains one of the best preserved regions of the world, remaining largely untouched by mankind and comprising large areas of intact forestry.

Manú contains around one tenth of the world’s vascular plant species – including species of palms and figs – alongside one thousand bird species, over a dozen species of primates and a myriad of other majestic animals, from giant otters to Spectacled Bears. In addition to this, a single hectare of forest land is reported to contain up to 220 species of trees.

The Western Ghats – a mountain range stretching across the western side of India – is described as one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world, with over 5,000 flowering plants, more than 500 bird species, and over 300 species of mammal and amphibian.

The Western Ghats, spanning from north to south along the western edge of India, harbors at least 325 species that are considered endangered. The arboreal Lion-tailed macaque, which is endemic to South India and the Western Ghats, is one such critically endangered animal; it is estimated that only 2,500 of these beasts remain in

Purple frog species found in Western Ghats
Photograph of the purple frog species (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), endemic to the Western Ghats.

existence today. Another prime example is the purple frog, which too remains critically endangered.

However, top of the recent study’s list, and defined as the most irreplaceable site in the entire world, is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park in Colombia. Established in 1964, the park is located in the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and acts as both a high-profile ecotourism destination and sanctuary.

UNESCO declared the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta park a biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, back in 1979. A flurry of research and conservation endeavors rage on throughout the area.

Areas of the park comprise of jaguars, tapirs, condors, and curassows, to name a select few animals, whilst the flora also remains highly diverse, with enormous trees, wax palms and epiphytes. Of Colombia’s 340 endemic species, 44 endangered species are located within the park.

A Study Designed to Encourage Support for Existing Protection Areas

Previous studies have focused upon attempting to expand the number of protected areas across the globe. However, the latest study, spearhead by Soizic Le Saout and colleagues,

Map showing the world's most irreplaceable locations
Map showing the world’s most irreplaceable locations

attempted to assess the importance of existing protected regions. It is believed that the results from the study might inform on future management and funding of these highly

important locations. Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Simon Stuart, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Rainforest Trust, elaborates upon this point during a recent press statement:

“Protected areas can only fulfil their role in reducing biodiversity loss if they are effectively managed… Given limited conservation budgets, that is not always the case, so governments should pay particular attention to the management effectiveness of highly irreplaceable protected areas.”

Meanwhile, Ana Rodrigues, a conservation biologist with the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, in France, appeared to agree with Stuart’s sentiments, when speaking to the National Geographic:

“We don’t have enough protected areas and we need to expand the network… it has become clear to us that you can’t just do that… You also need to ensure the existing areas work and do what we need them to do.”

The study was collaborated on by the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), the IUCN and BirdLife International. Although the data remains partially incomplete, the international group hope their new study will help conservationists identify those areas that are responsible for maintaining the bulk of endangered species; in turn, concerted preservation strategies can be launched to protect areas home to the most endangered mammals, birds and amphibians.

By James Fenner

Science Journal

Press Release

National Geographic

Science World Report




Western Ghats Ecology Report

Times of India

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