New study finds 92% of the priority habitat for protecting endangered land mammals is currently unprotected

Protecting habitats is the most powerful tool against species extinctions. New international study proposes more effective approaches to identify critical habitat for protection.

Amidst an alarming surge in global habitat destruction and species extinctions, new research published by eleven collaborating institutions proposes a new global approach to choosing protected lands which could reduce species extinction risk twice as efficiently as current methods.

Protecting key ecosystems and habitats is widely accepted as being one of the most powerful tools against species extinction

Rather than determine land prioritization based solely on species range and richness – as has historically been the case – conservation efforts should target areas that are essential for supporting species persistence and which are threatened by current and future land use.

“The global extinction of a species begins locally, occurring one population at a time, and individual populations can be more or less resilient depending on regional factors like land usage or management intensity,” explains lead author Nicholas Wolff, Director of Climate Science at TNC. “We need a prioritization model that reflects those core tenets of ecology.”

In the new approach developed by the researchers, conservation aims to maximise the number of surviving populations for each species, and target protection especially those that are threatened by land use. The study modelled what would happen if conservationists also incorporated population-level info, such as the growth rates and habitat needs of every individual population of a species. The results were eye-opening, showing that the number of surviving populations could be doubled with same amount of resources. At the same time, 92% of the planet’s ‘priority habitats for persistence’ – the lands, in other words, that at-risk mammals depend upon most for their survival – are not currently under strict protection. Of the globally threatened land mammals, only the Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) – a subspecies of the reindeer or caribou – occurs in Finland.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study where the identified priority areas maximize not just global biodiversity representation, but also persistence at this spatial scale and detail,” adds Heini Kujala, co-author and University Researcher at the Finnish Natural History Museum. “We hope the findings encourage innovation in conservation strategies worldwide, contributing to the global fightback against accelerating extinctions rates.” The priority areas for persistence were identified in collaboration with researchers from the Nature Conservancy and Finnish Natural History Museum, using the spatial conservation tool Zonation developed at the University of Helsinki.

The study, published in One Earth, identified a number of habitats where strengthening existing conservation protections has potential to bring about a significant reduction in global extinction risk for a greater number of species. Notably, they found that just seven countries – Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico and Papua New Guinea – contain over half of Earth’s surviving priority habitats for species persistence, providing ample potential for trialing the new approach proposed by this study.  

The study was authored in collaboration with scientists from TNC, IIASA, University of Helsinki, CNR-IRET, Radboud University, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), University College London, University of Melbourne, Sapienza University of Rome, and the University of Queensland.


Original publication