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Global Karst Conservation

Bringing Underground Knowledge to Light

Rare animals and high-quality drinking water depend on the conservation of Karst habitat.


Living within the karst (or cave) terrain that covers about 12 percent of the Earth are many of the world’s rarest and most endangered animals. In the United States, karst animals represent more than half of imperiled species, but, similar to other countries, fewer than 4 percent are federally protected. Karst terrain provides much more than habitat for rare animals – globally, 25 percent of humankind relies on groundwater for drinking.

Despite so much at stake, karst conservation is a relatively new field of study with few networks to facilitate the exchange of information. The Nature Conservancy is working to change that. Thanks to a donated endowment that funds innovative science projects annually, Conservancy colleagues and partners in Arkansas and the Dominican Republic are bridging critical gaps in karst conservation science.  

The situation in the Dominican Republic is common among countries with karst terrain: while experts within the country have in-depth knowledge of specific karst information, there are wide gaps in the data needed to plan coordinated conservation actions. Those with knowledge have not worked collectively until recently, as was once the case in Arkansas.

Ten years ago The Nature Conservancy launched its Ozark Highlands Karst Program in Arkansas to tackle the issues Dominican and other karst researchers now face. The first order of business was to form a network of karst experts from state and federal agencies, universities and caving organizations. Drawing on this collective expertise, the Conservancy and its partners developed a suite of tools that aid karst researchers in collecting data and creating conservation plans. Now recognized as a global leader in karst conservation, the Ozark Highlands program hosted in May 2008 the Conservancy’s first international karst conference in Eureka Springs. The event drew researchers and conservation specialists from three countries as well as four U.S. states.

In December many of these same participants met at a second workshop in the Dominican Republic to get expert feedback on the conservation plans they had begun in Eureka Springs. Mike Slay, the karst program director in Arkansas, said the resulting plans ranged from conservation actions designed to protect a single cave to addressing groundwater impacts for the aquifer that underlies most of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a region with thousands of water-filled caverns and sinkholes.

Following the five-day workshop, Slay and Ethan Inlander, the Conservancy’s Ozark Rivers program director, as well as Brian Wagner, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s karst specialist, joined experts from the Dominican Republic’s Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and its National Museum of Natural History in providing four days of training to help Conservancy staff in the Dominican Republic develop a karst program and a conservation plan.

“We offered a long menu of topics ranging from cave safety and cave mapping to species collection and identification,” Inlander said. “Our colleagues in the Dominican Republic said they wanted to start at the beginning, to get the basics of all the topics we offered.”

Dominican experts provided overviews of their country’s karst region and conservation issues, while a member of a local caving organization covered cave mapping. Then the group visited caves, where they practiced the techniques covered in the classroom. Slay and his colleagues provided training on species collection.

“On the last day, we were back in the classroom helping them learn taxonomy and species classification,” Slay said. “One of the most important successes from the training was bringing together the karst experts from within the country. They are now working as a team, using techniques we and many partners have honed over the past 10 years.”

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