How To Protect Half

Science Advances, 29 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8

By Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, and Binbin V. Li

Oban, New Zealand/Photo by Tomas Sobek

How to protect half of Earth to ensure it protects sufficient biodiversity




It is theoretically possible to protect large fractions of species in relatively small regions. For plants, 85% of species occur entirely within just over a third of the Earth’s land surface, carefully optimized to maximize the species captured. Well-known vertebrate taxa show similar patterns. Protecting half of Earth might not be necessary, but would it be sufficient given the current trends of protection? The predilection of national governments is to protect areas that are “wild,” that is, typically remote, cold, or arid. Unfortunately, those areas often hold relatively few species. Wild places likely afford the easier opportunities for the future expansion of protected areas, with the expansion into human-dominated landscapes the greater challenge. We identify regions that are not currently protected, but that are wild, and consider which of them hold substantial numbers of especially small-ranged vertebrate species. We assess how successful the strategy of protecting the wilder half of Earth might be in conserving biodiversity. It is far from sufficient. (Protecting large wild places for reasons other than biodiversity protection, such as carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services, might still have importance.) Unexpectedly, we also show that, despite the bias in establishing large protected areas in wild places to date, numerous small protected areas are in biodiverse places. They at least partially protect significant fractions of especially small-ranged species. So, while a preoccupation with protecting large areas for the sake of getting half of Earth might achieve little for biodiversity, there is more progress in protecting high-biodiversity areas than currently appreciated. Continuing to prioritize the right parts of Earth, not just the total area protected, is what matters for biodiversity.

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