Systematic Conservation Planning . Margules, C., and S. Sarkar . 2007 . Cambridge University Press , New York , NY . Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation Series. 277 (vii + 270) pp. $65.00 (paperback) . ISBN 978-0-521-70344-4 .

Ecologists have always been in the business of trying to solve practical conservation problems. Fascinated by progress in physics, mid-20th century ecologists would have rejoiced with the discovery of a formula that unequivocally expressed the universal value of nature. Such a formula was never found and despite attempts to develop a synthetic theory of biodiversity value, it was pragmatism that prevailed when conservation planning algorithms were first proposed. In contrast to previous conservation–evaluation procedures, these algorithms were not about giving high value to areas that contained many species, many rare species, or any kind of value obtained by summation or multiplication of indicators of biodiversity. Instead, the value of an area was seen as a relative concept: the contribution of an area to a pre-defined goal. As noted by Adams and Rose (1978), quoting M. D. Hooper, the “ultimate criterion” of conservation planning would amount to buying areas that added “most new species to an existing reserve system.” It was not until 1983 that the idea was formalized and properly implemented with an algorithm (Kirkpatrick 1983), and the concept of “complementarity,” itself, was only coined in 1991 (Vane-Wright et al. 1991). The suggestion that conservation areas should complement each other in terms of the features they contain now underpins a growing number of real-world conservation plans. It also constitutes the key principle of the emerging science of systematic conservation planning (Margules & Pressey 2000).

Surprisingly, systematic conservation planning is still poorly represented in textbooks and university curriculum. Might a modest presence in teaching be due to the young age of the discipline? Young age might be a factor indeed. But the breadth of the discipline, the complexity of some of its applications, and the rate with which new studies are being published makes it difficult for pedagogues, students, and practitioners to keep track of progress in the field. This does not come to the advantage of the field. The development of any discipline requires the subject be taught to students and that it be useful to potential users. Comprehensive and accessible textbooks in systematic conservation planning are thus needed if the field is to grow and mature.

Senior researcher Chris Margules, who recently became a conservation practitioner at Conservation International, and professor Sahotra Sarkar at Texas University have addressed this need. They have published the first attempt to synthesize systematic conservation planning concepts and methods to the nonfamiliar reader. Their book covers a range of topical issues, including a discussion of the strengths and limitations of biodiversity surrogates (chapter 2), the need for more data and for data collected more systematically (chapter 3), and the opportunities for making the best of available data through data mining procedures (chapter 4). Chapters 3 and 4 are not part of what might be loosely termed the science of systematic conservation planning, although they include themes that conservation planners and students need to be aware of. Conceptual issues relevant for the selection of conservation-area networks are highlighted in the introduction and developed in chapter 5, whereas chapters 6 and 7 provide extensions and further details on how planners might account for persistence and complex socioeconomic trade-offs in conservation decisions. These chapters are the spine of the book. Of particular importance is the 11-stage protocol for conservation planning outlined in the introduction. This is an extension of the original six-stage protocol proposed by Margules and Pressey (2000). I remain unconvinced that adding five stages to the original protocol is an improvement. The new stage 1—identification of stakeholders for the planning region—is a useful addition, but the additional stages are not mandatory (e.g., stage 9—examine the feasibility of using multicriteria analysis) or could be a step within a previous stages (e.g., stage 7—assess prognosis [of persistence] for biodiversity within each newly selected area). Indeed, persistence is best handled as a key component of the prioritization process (e.g., Williams & Araújo 2002). Thus, it should ideally be part of stage 6—prioritize new areas for potential conservation action. Finally, chapter 8 provides examples of five case studies in which concepts and methods characterizing systematic conservation planning, as described in the book, have been implemented in practice. This is a very useful section; in that it demonstrates that concepts and methods in systematic conservation planning can and are being applied in practice. It also helps the reader understand some of the challenges of applying conservation planning in real-world situations.

Overall, the book is well written, accessible, and reasonably comprehensive. The key topics and concepts are introduced and consistently integrated in the chapters, making it a coherent narrative rather than a loose compilation. Obviously, the price of breadth is lack of depth. For example, by choosing to write chapters on data collection and data mining, the authors have sacrificed a more detailed coverage of the field, for example by including a discussion of the environmental-change challenges to systematic conservation planning, to enable a discussion of topics that, although important (no decisions are made without data), are not key aspects of the field. Moreover, data collection and data mining are complex topics for which excellent textbooks already exist. Nevertheless, I am confident that the synthesis provided by Margules and Sarkar will prove a valuable resource, particularly for conservation practitioners. It will also be useful to students, although the book is so heavily based on the authors’ own work that it can hardly stand alone as a scholarly resource for teaching systematic conservation planning. For the more engaged reader, an independent search of the primary sources, complementing those provided in the book, is still compulsory.

This is the first textbook that attempts to synthesize the broad and fast-growing field of systematic conservation planning. It certainly will not be the last of such books, but it shows that the field is at last coming of age.

Literature Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Literature Cited
  • Adams, W. M., and C. I. Rose. 1978. The selection of nature reserves for nature conservation. Discussion paperbacks for conservation, no. 20. University College London, London .
  • Kirkpatrick, J. B. 1983. An iterative method for establishing priorities for the selection of nature reserves: an example from Tasmania. Biological Conservation 25:127134.
  • Margules, C. R., and R. L. Pressey. 2000. Systematic conservation planning. Nature 405:243253.
  • Vane-Wright, R. I., C. J. Humphries, and P. H. Williams. 1991. What to protect? Systematics and the agony of choice. Biological Conservation 55:235254.
  • Williams, P. H., and M. B. Araújo. 2002. Apples, oranges and probabilities: integrating multiple factors into biodiversity conservation with consistency. Environmental Modeling and Assessment 7:139151.