Conservationists Name Nine New "Biodiversity Hotspots"

John Roach
National Geographic News
February 2, 2005
Today conservationists named nine new "biodiversity hotspots"—areas
of mind-boggling species richness that are under constant assault from
human activity. The label highlights the regions as priorities for the
world's conservation efforts.

One hotspot is a crucial stopover for migrating monarch butterflies. Another has the highest tree richness of any temperate region on the planet. And yet another is a mountain refuge for vultures, tigers, and wild water buffalo. All the newly named hotspots have lost at least 70 percent of their original natural habitat.

The announcement was made by the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. The nonprofit also launched Hotspots Revisited, a book detailing a four-year analysis of its global hotspot strategy for biodiversity conservation.

"The hotspots strategy really intends to pick out regions across the globe where we need to go first to be effective in saving species," said Michael Hoffmann, a biodiversity analyst with Conservation International and contributing author to Hotspots Revisited.

The organization now recognizes a total of 34 biodiversity hotspots. About half of all plant and animal species on Earth are found in the hotspots, which originally covered 15.7 percent of Earth's surface area. Only about a tenth of that original habitat remains.

The hotspots range from the African island nation of Madagascar to the Indian Ocean islands, which are home to 24 families of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The Madrean pine-oak woodlands, a rugged mountainous area stretching from Mexico to the southwestern United States, was also highlighted.

By focusing attention on these regions, conservationists hope to maximize their efforts at saving as many species as possible from extinction.

Stuart Pimm—a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration—said the hotspot strategy is effective at channeling conservation efforts.

"We need to have a guideline of where to go, and it does help us focus our attention on areas that are important and disappearing quickly," he said.

Biodiversity Hotspots

The concept of biodiversity hotspots was penned by British ecologist Norman Myers in 1988 as a means to address the dilemma of identifying the areas most important for preserving species.

Myers recognized that—despite their relatively small sizes—certain ecosystems account for a high percentage of global biodiversity. Many of these same areas face tremendous pressure from logging, agriculture, hunting, and climate change, scientists say.

Myers reasoned that a prudent conservation strategy would be to target dollars and research at those regions where these threats are greatest to the greatest number of species.

In the mid-1990s, together with partners at Conservation International, Myers ironed out a formula for hotspot designation: The region must support at least 1,500 plant species found nowhere else in the world, and it must have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.

"Quite frankly, all biodiversity is important, that's the bottom line … but we have limited resources and limited time, so we have to become strategic in how we go about things," Hoffmann said.

According to Duke University's Pimm, the areas Conservation International has identified as biodiversity hotspots come as little surprise to conservation biologists. They've been working in them for years.

"In these places the vast majority of species that are teetering on the brink of extinction are found," he said. "If you care about species not going extinct, that almost immediately means you are working in hotspots."

Successful Implementation

According to Hotspots Revisited, about 750 million U.S. dollars has gone into biodiversity hotspot conservation over the last 15 years. That funding includes significant grants from the MacArthur Foundation, which is widely regarded as a pioneer in hotspot conservation.

"The concept has been remarkably successful in catalyzing some really significant funding from donors that has allowed us to channel resources into these places," Hoffmann said.

Madagascar, for example, is on a roll. At the 2003 World Parks Congress in South Africa, Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana pledged to triple the size of the nation's protected-area network and asked the conservation community for help. To date, more than 35 million U.S. dollars has been raised.

But not all hotspots are experiencing such success. According to Conservation International, Southeast Asia's Sundaland hotspot—which includes the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo—is deteriorating rapidly in the face of unabated commercial logging and agriculture expansion.

Also, the conservation community has yet to fully embrace the biodiversity hotspot strategy.

Peter Karveiva, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy in Seattle, Washington, said the hotspot approach to conservation is effective at protecting long lists of species. But, he said, it fails to maintain important ecosystem services that all humans need to survive. "Biodiversity hotspots should always be a factor in deciding where we work and should always be a major part of conservation planning," he said. "But we need to supplement our maps of species richness with maps of carbon storage, of fisheries production, of clean water, of agricultural systems, and so forth."

Hoffman said that failure to protect the hotspots would result in the loss of nearly 50 percent of Earth's plants and terrestrial vertebrates.

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