Published online 11 September 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news030908-13

News

Hundreds of threatened species falling through conservation gaps

Park congress hears wildlife reserves omit key areas of species diversity.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of very few protected marine areas.The Great Barrier Reef is one of very few protected marine areas.© Corbis

Some 700 threatened animal species are slipping through gaping holes in the global network of wildlife reserves, reveals a report released today1.

Worldwide, more than 102,000 sites are protected, according to the latest list of reserves presented this week to the World Conservation Union's Fifth World Park Congress in Durban, South Africa. These cover nearly 19 million square kilometres - an area totalling 11.5% of the world's land surface, and larger than China.

In 1962 just two million square kilometres were protected. "We can justifiably be proud of the growth in protected areas," Klaus Töpfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, told the congress.

"But the job is far from complete," says Ana Rodrigues of Conservation International, a campaign and research group based in Washington DC. Her team has found that reserves leave some 700 of the species on the World Conservation Union's Red List of threatened mammals, birds and amphibians totally unprotected. "Each is completely falling through the cracks," says Rodrigues.

The Comoro black flying fox (Pteropus livingstonii), from the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, is one such imperilled animal. The Wuchuan frog (Rana wuchuanensis), which inhabits only one cave in Guizhou, China, is another so-called 'gap species'.

Adding just 2.6% of Earth's land area to the existing park system would provide two-thirds of these gap species with protected habitat, argues Gustavo Fonseca, a scientist with Conservation International. "By acting strategically and quickly, we still have a chance to save the vast majority of these species," he says.

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The study identifies the areas under threat of destruction that contain the greatest number of gap species. The fast-disappearing Atlantic forest of South America, sandwiched between the expanding cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, is an excellent example.

The study is a broad-brush analysis that ignores the subtleties of species distributions at a local scale. Efforts to protect species must be led at the local level, urges Rodrigues.

The study also ignores animals and plants living in the world's freshwater lakes and rivers, or in the oceans, which cover 70% of Earth's surface. Data for these species exist but are yet to be consolidated into a useful form.

Oceans should be the next priority for protection, the congress discussed. "We need to tackle the big gaps at sea," said Töpfer. Marine reserves such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef currently cover just 0.5% of the world's oceans. 

  • References

    1. Rodrigues, A. S. L. et al. Global Gap Analysis: towards a representative network of protected areas. Advances in Applied Biodiversity Science 5, Conservation International, Washington D.C., (2003).