National Geographic News

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published November 14, 2013

In forests and on mountaintops and savannahs around the world, endangered and threatened animals cling to a precarious existence. Whether we can save their habitats from pollution, development, and other threats will determine whether they survive.

A new study aims to identify the terrestrial areas that are truly irreplaceable—vital for the preservation of mammals, birds, and amphibians.

Previous research and conservation efforts in the area have focused on expanding the global network of protected areas, said study co-author Ana Rodrigues, a conservation biologist with the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France. "We don't have enough protected areas and we need to expand the network."

"[But] it has become clear to us that you can't just do that," said Rodrigues. "You also need to ensure the existing areas work and do what we need them to do."

Protected areas encompass 13 percent of land on Earth and about two percent of Earth's oceans, according to a 2012 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report.

But the management plans and enforcement procedures for those places vary widely. Some parks, refuges, and other protected areas focus on protecting charismatic species that aren't in as much trouble as smaller, less conspicuous animals, Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues and colleagues hoped to identify areas that are officially protected but that are nonetheless in most need of attention. She stressed that all protected areas are important: "We're not saying we should drop any."

The conservation biologist hopes the new analysis will help managers and conservationists pinpoint protected areas that bear the brunt of the responsibility for sheltering mammals, birds, and amphibians—at least half of which are classified as endangered or threatened.

The data for other animal and plant groups wasn't as complete, so they weren't considered in this study. Information on marine protected areas is still in the nascent stages, so they were also excluded.

Here are six irreplaceable places highlighted in the study, published Thursday in the journal Science.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Photograph by Robin Moore.

This natural park sits on Colombia's Caribbean coast. "It's a mountain chain that goes from the Caribbean Sea up to 4,000 meters [13,123 feet],” says Rodrigues. “It peaks very quickly and it has a huge diversity of habitat."

That includes tropical areas at lower elevations, temperate areas, and peaks that are continually covered in snow and ice.

It's an area rich in endemic species—those that occur nowhere else on Earth. But the expansion of agriculture threatens the region, said Rodrigues. (Learn more about Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.)

Canaima National Park, Venezuela

Roraima Black Frog
The Roraima black frog is one amphibian species endemic to the tepuis in Canaima National Park. Photograph by Charles Besancon.

Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1994, this national park is perhaps best known for its tabletop mountains, called tepuis. (See "Pristine "Islands in the Sky" Are Window on Evolution.")

"The geology is quite extraordinary," Rodrigues noted. "Basically you have these tables coming out from the savannah and forests underneath. Each one is its own world."

The tabletop mountains sprout straight up about 3,200 to 9,800 feet (1 to 3 kilometers). Some are so isolated that the only way for humans to reach their peaks is by helicopter.

Each "island in the sky" has its own community of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Some, like a group of tree frogs known as Tepuihyla, are actually thought to have climbed up the sides of tepuis to the cloud forests above.

Rain Forests of the Atsinanana, Madagascar

Designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007, these rainforests are protected by a collection of six national parks along eastern Madagascar.

About 80 to 90 percent of all the plant and animal groups in this area are endemic, according to the United Nations World Heritage Convention.

An island nation, Madagascar broke off from Africa about 60 to 80 million years ago. The plants and animals that hitched a ride there have been isolated for a long time, resulting in many unique species, including primates like lemurs.

Western Ghats, India

Western Ghats, India
The hills and mountains of the Western Ghats in India. Photograph by Kalyan Varma.

The mountains in this World Heritage Site are older than the Himalayas.

Running along the west coast of India, the Western Ghats influence India's monsoon weather patterns and are considered one of the world's eight "hottest hotspots" of biodiversity.

The northern Western Ghats house about a third of the plants, roughly half the reptiles, and around three quarters of the amphibians found in India, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Western Ghats, India
A Black-chinned Laughingthrush in the Western Ghats. Photograph by Kalyan Varma.

Logging and agricultural activity threaten these mountains as people clear land to grow tea, coffee, and rubber and oil palm.

Central Highlands, Sri Lanka

These mountain forests are home to such endangered animals as the western purple-faced langur and the Horton plains slender loris. Less than a hundred Horton plains slender loris are thought to exist in the world.

The Highlands, comprising the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, Horton Plains National Park, and Knuckles Conservation Forest, was designated as a World Heritage site in 2010. It contains the largest tract of undisturbed mountainous and sub-mountainous rain forest in the country.

Udzungwa Mountains National Park, Tanzania

Although this mountainous area was submitted to the World Heritage commission for consideration as a potential World Heritage Site in the late 1990s, the Tanzanian government withdrew its application in 2011.

The national park cuts across the Eastern Arc mountain range and supports endemic species like the Iringa red colobus monkey and the Sanje crested mangabey monkey.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Vito La Fata
Vito La Fata

vogliono chiudere il petrolio rovinato la terra in cielo ):

michael h.
michael h.

maybe just maybe, we will be the next endangered species and the rest of the earth will probably breathe easier.  Sad to say maybe this brain of ours that enabled us to overpower all other species often without mercy has a flaw in it; greed, avarice willful ignorance that will make itself "it's" next victim.  Maybe the next "hominid" will have more of the compassion component in place.  We might just think twice "next time" about our place in the web of  life

robbie butler
robbie butler

parts of ireland need to be mentioned like bogs and woods

i saw once a spider that had was black and white in the bog

Patrick Chauvey
Patrick Chauvey

I am profoundly attached in the eastern rain-forest of Madagascar but I am not sure it is an honor to see it listed here.  I would much prefer to know it is in a better condition and less desperate need for help.  Yet, I am glad to know that it is receiving some attention in this highly regarded magazine.  I am somewhat familiar with this region, its situation.  I was invited to visit the Vohibe Forest conservation site in the Commune of Ambalabe (Vatomandry district), a 7,000-hectare forest in a quasi pristine condition managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG).  I was invited because of my ecologically oriented profession but also because the senior project manager and I share the same native town of Vatomandry, near the site location. The observations I made at this site gave me some intimate insight about the dynamics of deforestation and mostly about the challenges of slowing it, preventing it  and reversing it.  I believe as do the MBG staff involved in this project that it is possible to control deforestation and reclaim some of the adjacent forest.  But it requires steady work and serious investment of resources. Deforestation is primarily the effect of the rural population boom and their need for immediate subsistence. The solution must include sustainable rice farming and all sorts of associated agricultural and social support to the rural population.  MBG is doing a great job at the Vohibe site with the rural population, but much help is needed.  I would welcome any comments or input from similarly or generally interested individuals and share notes.

Rajiv Dwarka
Rajiv Dwarka

Suriname is also a nice place to be. Suriname is located in zuid America



El Gabilon
El Gabilon

We have no doubt that these places need to be protected.  However, the earth is a planet and functions through the laws of nature.  It needs to be protected everywhere, and all species.  What the human race needs to do is to stop expanding  ouwards and build upwards.  A city of thirty thousand people can be contained in a few city blocks. Reducing our need for space will allow the rest of the earth to recuperate from the destruction we have caused. Through our expansion we are encrouching upon the habitat of mllions of species that have just as much right to exist as the human race. If we continue we will not only cause their extinction but our own. We have no compunction when it comes to "culling" other species we find destroying habitat that we profit from....perhaps it is time to "cull" the human race.  Eventually it will come to that and in many ways it has alreay started.  In the past Eskimos "culled" when their elders became too old to contribute. National Geographic has been attempting to save the earth for 125 years but it hasn't even scratched the surface.  Time is running out.

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

What about the Amazon Forest and River?

Avis Reid
Avis Reid

These are truly beautiful, unique places.

Bruce Levick
Bruce Levick

Sumatra needs to feature on this map. So many species critically endangered. Tiger, elephant and orangutan are just a few of 100s close to extinction.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Carol Manka The study actually looked at over a thousand places, but we couldn't squish them all on to the map and still have it be legible. The authors identified the top 137 that were critical to the preservation of species, so we decided to go with that for our graphic.

And yes, as one of the researchers says, there are many, many places important to the conservation of animals and plants...this analysis wasn't trying to take anything away from them. They just wanted to highlight the fact that protected areas still need to be properly protected in order to work.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »