Setting Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation

Throughout most of the world, the practical and economic resources for conserving biodiversity are extremely limited. Therefore we need to set priorities for conservation action. To do this, we must decide what aspect of biodiversity we want to conserve, and we must use the appropriate surrogate to measure the biodiversity in the areas under comparison. For example, if we are working on freshwater fishes, we know that the Amazon Basin probably contains the most numerous and diverse fish fauna on earth, exceeding 1,000 species (Lundberg et al., 2000). However, we may be particularly interested in conserving endemic species that live in unusual habitats. In that case, we might be more inclined to put a premium on regions of Australia and New Guinea that are not rich in species (with about 500 species recorded) but do contain some unusual endemics found only in very restricted habitats, such as warm desert springs or ephemeral pools. As noted above, if we are particularly interested in conserving phylogenetically basal members of certain groups of fishes, such as cichlids and mullets, then we would direct our conservation efforts toward the rivers of Madagascar.

In some cases, the prioritization of regions for conservation is based, more pragmatically, on the relative threat of extinction to the species present. Thus, if we have $50,000 for conserving freshwater fish in either Brazil or Australia, our first inclination might be to use the money in the Brazilian Amazon, because there are more species there. But if we examine the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (, we can see that Australia has eight species of freshwater fish that are listed as "critically endangered," while Brazil has none. The biodiversity of Australia's freshwater fish is not as great as that of Brazil, but it is of special importance because proportionally more of the species are threatened. Thus there is an imperative to focus on the Australian freshwater fish for conservation work.

However, the example above represents an oversimplification. When any two regions are compared for prioritization of conservation action, conservation biologists look at all the other species present in the two regions, and they usually categorize areas based on the diversity or uniqueness of the entire ecosystem, rather than an individual species. Additionally, the quality of biodiversity data is highly variable for different continents. Some regions, such as parts of the Brazilian Amazon, may be imperiled by severe habitat loss, but there is inadequate data available to show that. The biodiversity of these regions may appear stable and unthreatened (with no species included on the IUCN Red List) simply because they have been undersampled and inadequately studied. Conservation biologists then choose to collect baseline information about the biodiversity of areas that are potentially important sites for conservation (Samways et al., 1995).

The choice of what surrogate to measure is never neutral. What you measure and how you measure it places a higher value on some particular element of biodiversity. By choosing one level, or unit, you draw attention and resources away from another. Ultimately, conservation decisions are influenced by many factors— political, economic, scientific, and social. Clear definitions of what level and aspects of biodiversity to target can help strengthen the effectiveness of science in the decision-making process.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0127506. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

—Ian J. Harrison, Melina F. Laverty, and Eleanor J. Sterling


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