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Over 5,000 vital biodiversity sites remain unprotected

Macaya reserve in the Massif de la Hotte, southwest Haiti, is the number one AZE site containing 13 frog species found nowhere else in the world. Photo © Robin Moore/iLCP.
Macaya reserve in the Massif de la Hotte, southwest Haiti, is the number one AZE site containing 13 frog species found nowhere else in the world. Photo © Robin Moore/iLCP.

A recent study has found that half of the world’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites remain unprotected, leaving many endangered species, some on the verge of extinction, gravely vulnerable to habitat loss. Published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, the study urges governments to focus on expanding protected areas to cover the species that need it most.

“Shockingly, half of the most important sites for nature conservation have not yet been protected,” said Stuart Butchart, Global Research and Indicators Coordinator with Birdlife International, which identifies IBAs worldwide. “And only one-third to one-fifth of sites are completely protected—the remainder are only partially covered by protected areas.”

Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are defined by ecosystems containing endangered birds or bird species restricted to a particular area. In addition, IBAs include vital wetland and marine areas. In all, BirdLife International has identified 10,993 IBAs, of which 49 percent lack protection. Less numerous, but more critical, are the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites. These areas target species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List—from mammals to plants—which are in addition restricted to one locality. In other words if their habitat is destroyed, extinction is a foregone conclusion; one could refer to them as a step away from extinction. AZE has identified 588 such sites worldwide, but 51 percent are unprotected. The 414 Endangered or Critically Endangered species living in these unprotected habitats “will likely be part of the next wave of extinctions unless urgent action is taken,” the study warns.

Worldwide around 13 percent of the land’s surface is under some form of protection, and global governments have agreed to expand that to 17 percent by 2020. While the study agrees that “there has been considerable progress towards meeting global protected areas targets,” it also notes that this has not translated into protection for many species. The study’s authors argue that in the future governments should target unprotected IBAs and AZE sites for expanding protected areas. Some countries—such as the EU, Madagascar, Nicaragua, and the Philippines—have already turned to IBAs and AZE for conservation planning.

“With the global population projected to skyrocket over the next 30 years, so will our demand for natural resources. Protecting those remaining pockets of nature will be crucial if we want to have food, water and a host of other vital benefits that that will allow us to survive and prosper,” said co-author Frank Larsen Conservation International.

Of course, conservation doesn’t end with putting aside an area for protection. Many of the world’s protected areas are little more than “paper parks”, set aside by government but plundered of their natural resources due to a lack of enforcement. Adequate management of the unprotected IBAs and AZE sites would cost around $23 billion annually, according to a “crude” estimate by the paper’s authors.

“Such sums may seem large, but they are tiny by comparison to the value of the benefits that people obtain from biodiversity. These ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination of crops, water purification and climate regulation, have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year,” said Butchart.

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