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Conservation Science

Biodiversity Hotspots: A Conservation Straitjacket?

"No conservation organization can honestly claim it is halting extinction. We have to stop defining conservation success exclusively in terms of species loss."

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy

It seems like a no-brainer: People concerned with saving the environment should save those places with (a) the most species and (b) that are under the biggest threats.

But in an age of nearly unprecedented species loss, could there be a more effective approach to conservation? Some scientists are now saying yes:

  • They argue that this "biodiversity hotspot" approach — which has been the dominant conservation paradigm for over two decades — actually misses more species and important ecological services than it protects.
  • And some even say that saving hotspots (which include tropical forests, oceanic islands and Mediterranean-type ecosystems) might actually be changing the course of evolution…for the worse.

Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy's chief scientist and one of the pioneering skeptics on hotspot conservation, has co-written a Scientific American article on the limitations of the hotspot approach. So asked him what should be the next directions for people trying to protect the planet.

Read our Q&A, and then tell us what you think of his ideas. The hotspot concept has been very effective at attracting funding for conservation — and it also seems a really cost-effective way of doing conservation. So why take a chance on switching paradigms?

Peter Kareiva: The real risk isn't in switching paradigms. It's in clinging too ardently to hotspots and hotspots alone.

Hotspots count only species — not life forms, not intact fauna, not unique adaptation, not top carnivores, not the delivery of benefits to humans, not inspiration, not water quality, not climate regulation, not soil fertility. And there are many specialized habitats with unusual and amazing creatures — caves and bogs, for example — that simply never get noticed by the hotspot paradigm.

Hotspots are also cost-effective only if you only care about long lists of species. If you care about places and the connection between people and nature — or if you care about ecological processes — there is nothing cost-effective about hotspots. You've written that hotspots often miss rare species and major animal groups could be lost by devoting too much attention to endemic plants. Give us some examples.

Peter Kareiva: Many extremely stressful environments have led to some of our most unique species — polar bears in the Arctic, camels in the deserts, fish with antifreeze in their blood in northern waters, and so on. Losing one or two species of those unique life forms may be more troubling than losing 500 beetles that are barely distinguishable in their natural history and morphology.

There is also something special about what scientists call an intact megafauna (i.e., a large animal species). That we can find grizzly bears and wolves and higher predators in the wild landscapes of the Yellowstone to the Yukon is every bit as special as any long list of species. What about the effect of hotspot conservation on humans?

Peter Kareiva: The originators and most strident supporters of the hotspot paradigm see the world through the eyes of a collector or museum curator, if you will. I see the world as an ecologist, someone trained to consider ecosystem processes, predator-prey interactions, and food-web dynamics.

Simply counting species often overlooks ecological processes. Many ecosystems and habitats are of tremendous value to human well-being even though they contain comparatively few species:

  • A forest with few species could still be critical to reducing sedimentation and maintaining water quality, for instance.
  • Salt marshes and coastal wetlands are nurseries for commercial fisheries, provide protection from storm surges, and reduce flooding damage.
  • Mangrove forests are another good example — they're among the most species poor of all tropical habitat types. Yet mangroves are nurseries for shrimp and fisheries and are nature’s protection against tsunamis and lesser storms.

Studies of before-and-after damage following the devastating December 2004 tsunami in Asia revealed that shorelines protected by intact mangroves suffered minimal damage and no loss of human life. Mangroves and marshes would never be identified as a conservation priority if one embraced the hotspot paradigm. That's plainly wrong. You also mention that making hotspots the priority might be inadvertently altering the course of evolution — and not in a good way. Why is that?

Peter Kareiva: Almost all of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are tropical. So are we to ignore the evolutionary innovations that arise elsewhere in the world, and the innovations we may well need in light of climate disruption and a rapidly changing planet?

We need to protect representations of adaptations from all of the world’s environments if we are to have any hope of maintaining the genetic variety we need in order to respond to a rapidly changing climate. OK — so in which directions should conservation be moving? Protecting ecosystem services? Won't that mean a greater loss of species? Can we ensure that doesn't happen?

Peter Kareiva: First, species are being lost. No conservation organization can honestly claim it is halting extinction. We have to stop defining conservation success exclusively in terms of species loss. We have to start defining it in terms of functioning ecosystems, and functional variety and intact native animals and plants.

The history of land protection in the United States began with protecting waterways, productive forests, recreational opportunities and the intrinsic inspirational splendor of nature. None of those ideas had anything to do with hotspots — they had to do with aspects of nature that people value. So yes, I think protecting the services that ecosystems provide us — or "natural capital," as I like to call them — is the way to go.

But when we protect ecosystem services, it should also always be hand-in-hand with native biodiversity. We can't become slaves to ecosystem services anymore than slaves to the idea of biodiversity hotspots. You've written that "the reality is that people must make conservation progress everywhere." That's sounds great — but scientifically, why is that?

Peter Kareiva: To be honest, I do not think there is a strong scientific argument for this view. Rather, it comes back to why we do conservation.

We are not conserving nature to show we can have a lot of species locked up in some museum display case for everyone to view. We protect nature for people. So the reason we have to do conservation everywhere is a matter of fairness — people who live in Mongolia or the tundra should not be denied nature simply because the nature in their back yard cannot boast a long list of species. Where is the Conservancy on these questions?

Peter Kareiva: Biodiversity hotspots were always only one of several factors we considered when developing conservation plans. But we have learned to better articulate our broader approach and to make our approach a selling point.

The Conservancy's new “protecting nature, preserving life” theme makes an explicit connection of our efforts to human well-being. This theme is not a hotspot paradigm. I personally feel this theme of nature for people is probably the only paradigm that can generate the broad support and constituency conservation needs. Are other conservation organizations following this lead?

Peter Kareiva: The major conservation non-governmental organizations are all discussing ecosystem services on their websites. This is partly because ecosystem services is an idea that has resonance with governments, resource agencies and the business community. So there is some opportunism there.

For the Conservancy, I think our attention to valuing nature is less about opportunism and more about recognizing this is what we have been doing for a long time — our efforts to work with ranchers, our attempts to promote sustainable forestry, and our focus on places are all conservation approaches that mesh well with an ecosystem-service paradigm.

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