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Mass extinctions can be prevented by protecting key sites

Human-caused mass extinctions can be prevented if we take action now, according to an international coalition of ecologists and conservationists. 

In a new study published in the  journal Frontiers in Science, the experts identified crucial biodiversity hotspots that house rare wildlife and outlined an achievable plan to protect endangered species.

Safeguarding the last wilderness areas 

Incorporating these “Conservation Imperatives” into the 30 by 30 initiative, which aims to protect 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030, could safeguard the world’s last wilderness areas and maintain essential biodiversity.

The article, authored by representatives from 20 organizations including the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK, shows that preserving Earth’s remaining biodiversity requires conserving just a small percentage of the planet’s surface. 

This plan would help save the most endangered species from extinction, securing Earth’s wildlife for future generations.

Preventing the sixth mass extinction 

“Most species on Earth are rare, meaning that species either have very narrow ranges or they occur at very low densities or both,” said lead author Eric Dinerstein, a scientist at the NGO Resolve

“And rarity is very concentrated. In our study, zooming in on this rarity, we found that we need only about 1.2% of the Earth’s surface to head off the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.”

“There is a dwindling window of opportunity to protect what is left of the wild across Earth’s ecoregions,” added co-author Carlos Peres, a professor of conservation ecology at UEA. 

“Our analysis shows that setting aside a critical threshold of only 1.2% of all terrestrial areas – identified as nearly 17,000 sites – to ensure the persistence of endemic, threatened, and rare species is a financially viable proposition, but I’m afraid this viability will rapidly decline over time.”

Remaining habitats for rare species

Between 2018 and 2023, an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of land were protected. 

However, Dinerstein and his colleagues estimated that this expansion only included 0.11 million square kilometers with range-limited and threatened species. Effective planning for protected areas is essential to ensure resources are used effectively.

The scientists used six layers of global biodiversity data to map the entire world. By combining these layers with maps of existing protected areas and a fractional land cover analysis, they identified remaining habitats for rare and threatened species. 

This enabled them to pinpoint the most critical, currently unprotected biodiversity areas, termed Conservation Imperatives, which serve as a global blueprint for local-level conservation planning.

Key sites to prevent mass extinctions

Protecting these 16,825 sites, covering approximately 164 million hectares, could prevent all predicted extinctions

Moreover, protecting the sites in the tropics alone could prevent most predicted extinctions. Some 38% of Conservation Imperatives are near already-protected areas, which could facilitate their integration into existing conservation zones.

“These sites are home to over 4,700 threatened species in some of the world’s most biodiverse yet threatened ecosystems,” said co-author Andy Lee, a manager at Resolve. 

“These include not only mammals and birds that rely on large intact habitats, like the tamaraw in the Philippines and the Celebes crested macaque in Sulawesi Indonesia, but also range-restricted amphibians and rare plant species.”

The cost of avoiding mass extinctions 

The researchers estimated the cost of this protection using data from hundreds of land protection projects over 14 years, considering the type and amount of land and country-specific economic factors. 

The figures are approximate, as various land purchase or long-term lease options might be suitable for protecting Conservation Imperatives.

Stakeholders worldwide, including indigenous peoples, communities with jurisdiction over Conservation Imperative sites, and other civil society members, will need to decide which options work best for them.

“Our analysis estimated that protecting the Conservation Imperatives in the tropics would cost approximately $34 billion per year over the next five years,” Lee said. 

“This represents less than 0.2% of the United States’ GDP, less than 9% of the annual subsidies benefiting the global fossil fuel industry, and a fraction of the revenue generated from the mining and agroforestry industries each year.”

Protecting Earth for future generations 

Preserving wildlife is also crucial for addressing the climate crisis. Biodiversity conservation means protecting Earth’s forest cover, which acts as a carbon sink. 

By conserving carbon-rich, wildlife-rich forested regions, we protect both threatened species and humans. Securing Conservation Imperatives is only the first critical step in this effort, as further actions are needed to address issues like poaching.

“What will we bequeath to future generations? A healthy, vibrant Earth is critical for us to pass on. So we’ve got to get going. We’ve got to head off the extinction crisis. Conservation Imperatives drive us to do that,” Dinerstein concluded.


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