Where Nature matters most: a blueprint for effective conservation
By Andrew Plumptre, Wendy Elliot, Daniel Marnewick, Andrew Skowno, Domitilla Raimondo, and Stephen Holness
If you had 1 million dollars to give to secure nature where should you put it to have the biggest impact?
If you are a developer and want to avoid having a negative impact on the most important places for nature, where would you start? If you wanted to focus Nature-based Solutions in areas where they will have the biggest positive impact for nature, where would you go? If you are a Head of State looking to protect the most important places in your country, how would you decide?
These questions are often asked by donors, the business and development sectors, and are becoming ever more urgent as the world finally starts to wake up to the scale of the nature crisis and our societies and economies’ reliance on healthy ecosystems. But until recently the conservation community struggled to answer these questions effectively. Indeed, over the past 50 years, species populations have declined by 68% on average, while wetlands and forests continue to be lost at alarming rates.
There are many competing ideas about what constitutes a critical site for nature.
Should we focus on globally threatened species such as those listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List? Should we be concerned about those species with small ranges which are more susceptible to extinction due to habitat loss? Should we instead focus on large intact wilderness areas where we have fully functioning ecosystems and greater potential to deliver ecosystem processes such as carbon sequestration at scale? Then there are the wildlife congregations, where hundreds of animals come together for breeding or for food, often creating an incredible spectacle, and without which the species would not survive? And finally the idea of irreplaceable sites, those places that are unique.
Given that these are all important considerations, and the need for a credible and standardised response, it was essential that the conservation community was able to answer with ‘one voice’. Therefore, in 2016 the global conservation community came together and after extensive global consultation agreed a common approach to identifying important sites for nature — Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).
The KBA approach captures all of the different ideas above under 11 criteria. Following the development of this agreed approach, 13 of the leading conservation institutions came together to form the KBA Partnership, the largest such partnership to exist to date. KBAs are identified nationally but focus on the global importance of sites and the recently updated website and World Database of KBAs currently holds data on more than 16,000 KBAs, making the data available freely accessible.
KBA National Coordination Groups are being established in many countries around the world and are starting to undertake national assessments of their KBAs. South Africa has just completed a first identification of KBAs, assessing 23,491 species and 475 ecosystems, in one of the most comprehensive KBA assessments of any country to date. Their recently released report shows how a diverse group of experts systematically identified hundreds of KBAs across the whole country, helping to build a greater understanding of the global significance of many sites in this megadiverse nation, especially for geographically restricted species and ecosystems. The comprehensive KBA network will complement the world leading systematic conservation planning processes in South Africa and further strength conservation decision-making and management. The long history of biodiversity assessment and planning in South Africa provided a fertile ground for this ambitious KBA assessment, and the well-established tools the country has that facilitates applying the plan across all sectors of government will promote robust uptake.
As countries come together to identify KBAs and map them nationally we are developing a blueprint for conservation that is actionable. And this blueprint is already being used by many actors to focus conservation and reduce impacts where it counts most.
International financing institutions are using identified KBAs to guide where they will invest in projects. The International Finance Corporation, for instance, uses the presence of KBAs to guide which projects they will finance through the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT). A growing number of companies are also preferring to avoid sites that have KBA status because of the potential risks to their reputation. Donors are using KBAs to guide where they will fund and as a metric for tracking their impacts. Governments are also using KBAs to guide where they expand their protected area network to ensure globally important sites are protected.
The UN Biodiversity Summit is an unprecedented opportunity for government, business and conservation leaders to shine a spotlight on KBAs.
While global assessments of biodiversity patterns are useful, most political decisions for nature conservation take place nationally and therefore sites of importance for biodiversity need to be identified at a national level. If sites are to be protected by law and recognised as important they need to be identified nationally and incorporated in national policies. This is where the role of KBA National Coordination Groups is vital to the process.
With a growing interest by countries around the world in establishing such groups, a challenge is to support each of them to undertake the process to identify and conserve their KBAs. With the world coming together to develop the next 10-year strategy for nature conservation and discussing what should be focused on, the support of these groups and the mapping and conservation of KBAs would go a long way to ensuring that we do not lose species to extinction and that we get a lot closer to developing a global blueprint that more clearly answers the question of “where my million dollars would best be invested”.