Aim To investigate explanations for the maintenance of a positive spatial species richness–human population density correlation at broad scales, despite the negative impact of humans on species richness. These are (hypotheses 1–4): (1) human activities that create a habitat mosaic and (2) a more favourable climate, and (3) adequate conservation measures (e.g. sufficient natural habitat), maintain the positive species richness–human density correlation; or (4) the full range of human densities decrease the slope of the correlation without changing its form.
Location South Africa.
Methods Avian species richness data from atlas distribution maps and human population density data derived from 2001 census results were converted to a quarter-degree resolution. We investigated the number of land transformation types (anthropogenic habitat heterogeneity), irrigated area (increasing productivity), and other covarying factors (e.g. primary productivity) as predictors of species richness. We compared species richness–human density relationships among regions with different amounts of natural habitat, and investigated whether the full range of human densities decrease species richness in relation to primary productivity.
Results Hypotheses 1, 2 and 3 were supported. Human densities and activities that increase habitat heterogeneity and productivity are important beneficial factors to common species, but not to rare species. The species richness–human density relationship persists only at low land transformation levels, and no significant relationship exists at higher levels. For common species, the relationship becomes non-significant at lower land transformation levels than for rare species.
Main conclusions The persistence of the species richness–human density relationship depends mostly on the amount of remaining natural habitat. In addition, certain human activities benefit especially common species. Common species seem to be more flexible than rare species in response to human activity and habitat loss.