Studies in conservation biology often focus on rare, threatened species faced with impending extinction, but what about common animals of least concern? Could they too help conservationists fine-tune their approach?
Doctoral researcher Laurel Yohe not only claims that they can, but demonstrates how in a new study recently in mongabay.com’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science. She and five other researchers from universities in the U.S., U.K., and Vietnam compared ranges of five babblers (family Timaliidae) with development across Vietnam. They then used that comparison to predict which areas of the ever-urbanizing country warrant the most protection and which species were hit hardest by past urbanization.
Yohe reasons that conservationists could use the study’s findings to plan protection for less common or threatened species.
“If there is high human impact for a non-threatened species,” Yohe explained, “it is likely that a threatened species is experiencing the same or more extreme levels of human impact.”
The authors used three types of maps to conduct their study. The first required the help of several natural history museums, which collectively supplied over ninety years (1878-1971) of accounts on which babblers dwelled in which regions of Vietnam historically. Next, they retrieved a map depicting varying degrees of human influence, which was scaled by considering measures like population density, road construction, and agricultural development. The third map showed the country’s protected areas.
The study followed five species of babbler. Photo by: Yohe et al.
They imposed the maps on one another and arrived at three conclusions: birds with wide distributions are most likely to be affected by development, very little of the babblers’ habitats lay within protected regions, and, given this, now is the appropriate time for the country to begin prioritizing plans for conservation.
Three of the five babblers’ ranges overlapped with areas of high human influence. Because those babblers’ distributions happened to be in regions that favored human development, their ranges were the most disrupted, according to Yohe.
When the researchers compared the birds’ ranges with the amount of protected land, they found that only 14-20 percent of those ranges overlapped with nationally protected areas. Yohe regards this as an opportunity for Vietnam to make its conservation efforts more efficient.
“Because human influence is affecting biodiversity to similar degrees in different regions of this country,” the study states, “conservation and protected area focus should be on regions of high impact rather than on particular species in Vietnam.”
By focusing on the unprotected areas instead of threatened species, the country could cast a wider net and sustain biodiversity.
Vietnam is growing; it’s the world’s third largest rice exporter and the second largest coffee exporter. The country doubled its agricultural area between 1994 and 2005. But it’s also home to incredibly diverse ecosystems. In the past decade, researchers have identified hundreds of new plants and animals there, along with some creatures once thought to be extinct.
“As Vietnam continues to grow economically,” reads the study, “prompt efforts to protect species’ habitats and reduce deforestation must be made or we may face yet another unfortunate case of failing to act in time to protect a region of extraordinary biological diversity.”
- Yohe, L. R., Flanders,J.,Duc,H. M.,Vu,L.,Phung,T. B.,Nguyen, Q. H.and Reddy, S. 2014. Unveiling the impact of human influence on species distributions in Vietnam: a case study using babblers (Aves: Timaliidae). Tropical Conservation Science. Vol.7 (3):586-596.
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