Site icon Conservation news

Study shows how to protect more species for less money in western Amazon

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador, in the western Amazon. Image by Javier Fajardo Nolla.

  • A new study identifies nearly 300 areas for proposed protection in the western Amazon that would give the most bang for the buck in terms of the number of species conserved in this biodiversity hotspot.
  • The researchers considered management and lost-opportunity costs in their analyses, and found that the presence of indigenous communities in protected areas can actually bring down the costs of conservation.
  • While the estimated cost for protecting these proposed areas is just $100 million a year — less than a hundredth of the GDP of the countries in the western Amazon — the researchers say there needs to be clear political will to implement such a solution.

Jaguars, sloths, owls, vipers, spider monkeys — all of these live within the vast western Amazon, a region that boasts an incredible diversity of life. Roughly 20 percent of the western Amazon is designated as protected area, but, according to a recently published study, these protected areas fall short of representing the immense biodiversity of the region.

In this study, researchers asked: How can we expand the current protected area system to optimize the protection of biodiversity at the least possible cost?

To answer this question, they considered species distributions (where plant and animal species occur), and both the potential costs of managing new areas as well as the opportunity costs — income that may be lost by protecting land instead of using it for revenue-generating activities such as farming or livestock.

The team set a conservation target of protecting 2,419 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and plants with their proposed protected area expansion. This number came from recorded plant and animal occurrences in the western Amazon, a region encompassing the Amazonian lowlands, Amazonian foothills, and Andean Amazon in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

Protected areas adequately cover only 1,777 of these 2,419 target species at present. Of the remainder, 70 percent live in the Andean Amazon sub-region, making this a high priority area for expansion.

Hoatzin birds (Opisthocomus hoazin) in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador. Image by Javier Fajardo Nolla.

The researchers built regional cost model maps using published studies of known management costs for similar areas and opportunity cost projections. Size, location and design are known to influence management costs, with large, inaccessible areas typically costing less to protect. They also considered population density, slope, proximity to oil blocks and other factors.

They then combined these cost maps with maps of the target species distribution to identify priority areas for conservation — areas that would provide the greatest “species value per cost.”

The result: 297 priority areas identified for protected area expansion, spanning a combined 16 percent of the western Amazon, or 223,622 square kilometers (86,341 square miles) — an area about half the size of California. Most of these high-priority areas were in Peru and small in size, less than 100 square kilometers (39 square miles), with varying levels of accessibility from roads and cities.

“I expected to find the size of reserves to be an important factor to determine the potential cost of protecting an area,” says Janeth Lessman, a doctoral candidate at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and lead author of the study. “But it surprised me finding that, for this region, the presence of indigenous lands in protected areas was also associated with lower management costs. This is the first time, as far as I know, that indigenous lands are proved to influence the cost of managing land as protected areas.”

The Momon River near Iquitos, Peru. Image by Javier Fajardo Nolla.

Many indigenous people depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, a relationship that encourages these communities to find methods of controlling loggers, miners, hunters and fires. In this way, traditional protection and governance can lower the costs of managing lands by government agencies.

At an estimated $100 million per year, enacting the full proposed expansion would represent a small fraction — just 0.0018 percent — of the annual GDP of countries in the western Amazon. (Military spending in the region was 2.2 percent of GDP in 2016, according to the World Bank.)

Using the study’s findings to optimize costs could reduce annual spending on protected area management by 22 percent compared to expansion without cost analyses, the study suggests. It highlights the importance of both indigenous people as well as international collaboration to bring down costs, which would be 39 percent and 49 percent higher, respectively.

“Planning for conservation is not a simple task. There is no single and universal formula to decide which site we should protect and spend the limited resources that are usually available for spending in conservation,” Lessmann says.

The Momon River near Iquitos, Peru. Image by Javier Fajardo Nolla.

Two opposing conservation strategies have been debated: prioritizing highly threatened and expensive places, versus investing in low-threat, larger, cheaper areas. This study suggests that combining these approaches may be the best way to protect more species at the least possible cost.

“Specifically, we need to protect vulnerable and expensive sites in order to improve the conservation of certain unique species,” Lessmann says. “But it is also important to alleviate the total conservation costs in the region. Therefore, whenever possible, other species (especially those with broader distributions) should be protected in less accessible and cheaper areas, usually inhabited by indigenous groups. Of course, this strategy would require informed consent from indigenous people and true participation in design and management.”

Protecting just the 20 most efficient priority areas identified in this study would cost an estimated $20 million per year. About half of that cost would be accounted for by management and half by lost opportunity costs. These 20 areas would protect 67 percent (437) of the inadequately protected target species and would cover roughly 7 percent of the western Amazon. However, existing protected areas already endure funding challenges, making management and conservation outcomes difficult to achieve.

“Implementing our findings would require a clear political will to increase conservation funding,” Lessmann says. “Investment is needed, both to guarantee the functioning of already existing reserves and to protect new places to complete biodiversity representation in reserves.”

Banner image of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador, in the western Amazon, by Javier Fajardo Nolla.


Lessmann, J., Fajardo, J., Bonaccorso, E., & Bruner, A. (2019). Cost-effective protection of biodiversity in the western Amazon. Biological Conservation, 235, 250-259. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.04.022

Exit mobile version