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Scientists Have Identified the Most Irreplaceable Areas on the Planet

Preventing extinctions means conserving more than just the fluffiest animals.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia is the most irreplaceable protected area. Photo via Flickr/Sémaphorismes

A new study published in the journal Science has identified the protected areas that are most irreplaceable when it comes to conserving biodiversity, in an attempt to improve the management of  the planet's most critical environments.

According to the paper, conservation efforts in the past have been too focused on broadening the network of protected areas (PAs) rather than considering ways to better manage existing spots. “Because PAs are often understaffed, underfunded, and beleaguered in the face of external threats, efforts to expand PA coverage should be complemented by appropriate management of existing PAs,” the authors wrote. It’s the old adage of quality over quantity.


The international team of scientists looked at the 173,461 places on the World Database on Protected Areas and the 21,419 species of mammal, amphibian, and bird on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species to identify sites that were exceptionally irreplaceable when it came to global biodiversity. By their calculations, a site’s “irreplaceability” essentially depends on the role it plays in supporting the survival of species. If a species lives only in one place, that place is effectively irreplaceable to that species; if the area isn’t effectively conserved, the species could be lost. It seems only logical that the areas most critical to preventing species extinctions should be where efforts are focused—and that within each protected zone, the species identified as most dependent on the area should be a priority of local management. But in practice that isn't always the case.

The Laysan Duck is critically endangered. Photo via Flickr/USFWS Pacific

This touches on an important problem in conservation today. It’s easy to focus on the more “charismatic” endangered species, like pandas and tigers, but the fluffiest animals aren’t necessarily those in greatest need of attention, and targeting just the crowd-pleasing species that make for good TV ads and cuddly toy giveaways isn’t the best way to protect a whole ecosystem.

There are some species in the irreplaceable areas identified by the study that can't be found anywhere else. The IUCN, which was one of the institutions represented by the study’s authors, gave the example of the Laysan Duck, which is endemic to just three small Hawaiian islands, and the 13 species of amphibians that are found only in the Canaima National Park in Venezuela. Overall, they said, the selected sites are home to the majority of the populations of some 600 animals, half of which are considered threatened species.

The areas considered most irreplaceable span 34 countries, with the top spot going to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park. That site is home to 44 of the world’s endangered species, but their habitat is increasingly threatened by humans. "This beautiful mountain, which is not far from cities and towns, is being colonised by rich people building second homes,” Ana Rodrigues, a researcher at CEFE-CNRS in France and one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

Like many places on the list, the Colombian site it isn’t as protected as it could be. Half the irreplaceable areas identified don’t have UNESCO World Heritage recognition, which could help conserve them. “These exceptional places would all be strong candidates for World Heritage status,” said Soizic Le Saout, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Such recognition would ensure effective protection of the unique biodiversity in these areas, given the rigorous standards required for World Heritage sites.”

What's most important for now is that those areas recognised as "protected" actually live up to their name.