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New study says conservation works, providing hope for biodiversity efforts

• Predator management of two of Florida’s barrier islands, Cayo Costa and North Captiva, resulted in an immediate and substantial improvement in nesting success by loggerhead turtles and least terns, especially compared to other barrier islands where no predator management was applied. (Photo by Matthew Paulson via Flickr Creative Commons)

  • A new study published in Science reveals that conservation works, with conservation actions improving or slowing the decline of biodiversity in two-thirds of the cases analyzed.
  • The study highlights the effectiveness of various conservation strategies, such as controlling invasive species, restoring habitats and establishing protected areas, across different geographic locations, ecosystems and political systems.
  • The economic case for investing in conservation is strong, as more than half of the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature, and every dollar invested in conservation yields a return of $100 in ecosystem services.
  • While conservation efforts are crucial, the study’s lead author emphasizes that addressing drivers of biodiversity loss, such as unsustainable consumption and production, is also necessary to halt and reverse the decline of biodiversity.

Conservation efforts are making a significant difference in protecting the planet’s biodiversity, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

In an analysis of 186 studies covering 665 trials, researchers evaluated the impact of conservation interventions globally over the past century. In two-thirds of the cases, conservation actions either improved biodiversity or slowed its decline.

“Our study shows that when conservation actions work, they really work,” said Jake Bicknell, co-author of the paper and a conservation scientist at University of Kent. “In other words, they often lead to outcomes for biodiversity that are not just a little bit better than doing nothing at all, but many times greater.”

Representation of different broad categories of conservation impact, with illustrative case studies drawn from the study’s dataset. Figure from Langhammer et al 2024.

Many conservation strategies are working, according to the study, including controlling invasive species, restoring habitats and establishing protected areas. Managing invasive species, particularly on islands, showed significant positive impacts.

“What surprised me the most was just how well conservation works, kind of across the board, meaning across different geographic locations, ecosystems and political systems,” Penny Langhammer, executive vice president of Re:wild and co-author of the study, told Mongabay.

“We saw this [positive] signal from places like off the coast of Florida to South Africa to the Philippines, there was no geographic differentiation,” Langhammer said. “So, conservation from all of these places, across the globe, is stopping and reversing biodiversity loss.”

Cuban Crocodile hatchings in the Zapata Swamp breeding sanctuary in August 2019. Conservation breeding and release is one of a number of species-specific conservation actions included in the meta-analyis study. Photo by Robin Moore, Re:wild

Despite the overall positive impact of conservation, the study also found that in 21% of the cases studied, biodiversity declined under conservation efforts compared with no action. The researchers emphasized that conservation strategies are sometimes learned by trial and error and need continuous improvement and adaptation.

The study also found a correlation suggesting that conservation is becoming more effective over time, as strategies and techniques improve.

“Even when conservation interventions didn’t work for the species or ecosystem that they were intended to benefit, other species either often unintentionally benefited, or we learned from the result, ensuring that our next project or conservation action would be successful,” Langhammer said.

Virunga National Park rangers. Rangers play a key role in safeguarding protected areas, one of the key conservation actions included in the meta-analysis. Photo by Bobby Neptune
Park rangers in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rangers play a critical role in safeguarding protected areas, one of the key conservation actions included in the meta-analysis. Photo by Bobby Neptune

The economic case for investing in conservation is strong. More than half of the world’s GDP, almost $44 trillion, is moderately or highly dependent on nature. By some estimates, a global conservation program would cost between $178 billion and $524 billion. While this may seem like a large sum, it pales in comparison with the $7 trillion spent on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022.

“For every dollar that we invest in conservation, we get 100 back in ecosystem services,” Langhammer said. “It’s really a very good investment and one that’s critical for healthy ecosystems and a healthy planet.”

According to the IUCN, 44,000 species are documented as being at risk of extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 26% of mammals and 12% of birds. The authors hope this study informs global biodiversity targets and serves as a call to action for governments, civil society, private individuals and companies to invest more in conservation while addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss.

Predator management of two of Florida’s barrier islands, Cayo Costa and North Captiva, resulted in an immediate and substantial improvement in nesting success by loggerhead turtles and least terns, especially compared with other barrier islands where no predator management was applied. Photo by Lewis Burnett.

“With less than six years remaining to achieve ambitious biodiversity targets by 2030, there is a great sense of urgency for effective conservation action,” Madhu Rao, chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. “This research clearly demonstrates that conservation actions are successful. We just need to take them to scale.”

However, Langhammer said, “Conservation alone is not enough. … As critical as it is to scale up these conservation efforts, we also have to address these drivers of biodiversity loss, like unsustainable consumption and production.”

“If you look only at the trend of species declines, it would be easy to think that we’re failing to protect biodiversity, but you would not be looking at the full picture,” Langhammer said. “What we show with this paper is that conservation is, in fact, working.”

Correction 5/2/24: The original version of this story stated that “deforestation in the Congo Basin was 74% lower in logging concessions under a Forest Management Plan than in those without one.” This is claim is unsubstantiated and has been removed. We regret the error.

Banner image of a least tern chick (Sternula antillarum). Predator management of in Florida’s barrier islands resulted in an immediate improvement in nesting success. Photo by Matthew Paulson via Flickr Creative Commons.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees.

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Citations:

Langhammer, P. F., Bull, J. W., Bicknell, J. E., Oakley, J. L., Brown, M. H., Bruford, M. W., … & Brooks, T. M. (2024). The positive impact of conservation action. Science384(6694), 453-458. DOI: 10.1126/science.adj6598

Seidl, A., Mulungu, K., Arlaud, M., Van den Heuvel, O., & Riva, M. (2020). Finance for nature: A global estimate of public biodiversity investments. Ecosystem Services, 46, 101216. doi:10.1016/j.ecoser.2020.101216

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