The science–policy interface for safeguarding key biodiversity areas


Thomas Brooks, NatureServe, 1101 Wilson Blvd, 15th Floor, Arlington, VA 22209, USA.

Bridging the divide between pure and practical science is an age-old challenge in all disciplines, but in biodiversity conservation at least, the prospect of better integration between science, policy and practice is an increasingly realistic one. On 21 December 2010, the United Nations 65th General Assembly agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), to tighten the interface between academia and application in the field of nature conservation (Mooney & Mace, 2009; see While the mechanisms by which IPBES operates have yet to be finalized, and while vigilance will be essential to ensure that the platform builds from existing initiatives rather than duplicating efforts and spreading scarce resources even more thinly, the potential for guiding science towards tackling the most pressing questions while infusing cutting-edge research into policy and practice is invigorating.

In this issue, Beresford et al. (2010) provide a powerful example of the value of such an interface between science, policy and practice. On the one hand, their analysis of the coverage of threatened African bird distributions by protected areas advances pure biodiversity science in a number of important ways. On the other, it stands to inform a number of conservation applications in Africa and beyond. Here, we highlight four of the most important of these directions and implications.

The shortfall in protected area coverage, and policies to improve it strategically

Overall, Beresford and colleagues reinforce the disconcerting finding that protected areas in Africa fall well short of comprehensive representation of threatened species. The authors show that protected area coverage of ‘Extent of Suitable Habitat’ (ESH) averages 14%. This compares closely to the 12% expected by combining their finding that 30% of ESH falls within important bird areas (Fishpool & Evans, 2001) with the report in the third Global Biodiversity Outlook that an average of 39% of important bird areas globally are protected (SCBD, 2010).

These findings provide strong endorsement for international agreements to expand protected area coverage of key biodiversity areas. The 10th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Nagoya, Japan, November 2010 ( established a number of relevant decisions on the issue. Target 11 of the convention's new strategic plan (Decision X/2) mandates protected area expansion to cover ‘especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity’. Similarly Target 5 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (Decision X/17) calls for protection of ‘at least 75% of the most important areas for plant diversity’, while the Programme of Work on Protected Areas (Decision X/31) urges that countries consider ‘standard criteria for the identification of sites of global biodiversity conservation significance when developing protected area systems, drawing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species’. Other intergovernmental treaties such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands ( and the World Heritage Convention ( are similarly dependent on standardized definition of important sites for biodiversity conservation.

Novel species range measurement, and informing safeguard policies

The paper's primary innovation is its introduction of ESH as a measure of species' range size, calculated by cutting ‘Extent of Occurrence’ (EOO) maps by suitable habitat and altitude for the species. We suspect that ESH will prove important for two reasons. First, it stands to refine estimates of extinction risk, which EOO underestimates for many species (e.g. those with patchy or linear distributions). Second, given that it reduces commission error (and hence unnecessary expense) by a third relative to EOO, ESH will be valuable in guiding field research priorities.

One important implication of this new metric will be in informing the planning policies and strengthening social license to operate in the private sector. Corporations need not just the known locations of key biodiversity areas, but also guidance in research priorities for environmental assessment to minimize their impacts within the landscape more broadly. Many of the international financial institutions are incorporating such approaches into their lending safeguards (e.g. in the revision of Performance Standard 6 of the International Finance Corporation; Moreover, numerous companies are incorporating such standards into their own procedures (for instance, Rio Tinto draws on them to guide its commitment to having a ‘Net Positive Impact’ on biodiversity;

Geographic variation in protected area coverage, and prioritizing national gap analysis

The authors' finding that percentage coverage of ESH by protected areas varies across ecosystems (with xeric habitats generally less well safeguarded) is less novel but still important in underscoring similar results from other studies (e.g. Hoekstra et al., 2005). Likewise, that ESH coverage varies across space underscores existing results (e.g. Rodrigues et al., 2004). While Beresford and colleagues do not analyse freshwater and marine species or ecosystems, we suspect that these will emerge as particularly poorly represented.

Clearly, the implementation of action under international commitments to ensure better representation of biodiversity in protected areas occurs within individual countries, and so Beresford and colleagues's results will prove important in prioritizing national gap analysis within African countries. Their figure 6b shows the priority regions for such work: the Albertine Rift, Madagascar and the highlands and coastal forests of Kenya, Tanzania and Cameroon.

Implications of the negative relationship between protected area coverage and extinction risk

Maybe Beresford and colleagues's most worrying and novel result is that percentage coverage of ESH by protected areas declines (steeply) as extinction risk increases (their figure 5). This result is counter-intuitive – evidence from elsewhere suggests that bird conservation has been particularly successful in focusing on the rarest species (Brooke et al., 2008). It is presumably explained by the fact that many Critically Endangered African species have tiny distributions concentrated in areas of high human impact (Balmford et al., 2001). The degree to which this negative relationship between protected area coverage and extinction risk is a general pattern across other regions and taxa is an important, open research question.

One implication of this disturbing result is the urgency of finding methods for site conservation in densely populated areas beyond formal national park systems. To this end, the establishment of global standards for site-level biodiversity conservation significance has been shown to yield great benefits at the level of local and indigenous communities, through stabilizing land tenure, opening alternative employment opportunities, attracting international investment and mobilizing societal pride in nature. To cite just one example, the village-level ‘site-support group’ established based on the presence of a key population of the threatened Sharpe's Longclaw Macronyx sharpei in the Kinangop grasslands of Kenya has successfully attracted government, private sector and donor investment. This in turn has led to amelioration of pressure to convert grassland habitat into potato fields through capacity building, nature-reserve purchase and economic diversification, providing local social benefits as well as reducing the decline in status of this important site from ‘major’ in 2006 (Ng'weno & Matiku, 2006) to ‘slight’ in 2009 (Matiku & Ng'weno, 2009).


The IUCN Species Survival Commission and World Commission on Protected Areas has recently established a taskforce on ‘biodiversity and protected areas’ (; we both serve on its advisory committee), one of the objectives of which is to strengthen the interface between science and policy and practice for the identification of key biodiversity areas (Eken et al., 2004). In this light we are delighted to see the research pioneered by Beresford and colleagues, which will certainly stimulate advances in both the academic and the applied fields. More generally, we see these processes for identifying and safeguarding important sites for biodiversity as a model for how IPBES might operate, and indeed a priority starting point for incorporation under the IPBES umbrella as the mechanism becomes operational over the coming years.