World's Most Irreplaceable Protected Areas Identified in New Study

First Posted: Nov 15, 2013 10:24 AM EST

As our climate changes and as species disappear, it's important to identify what areas should be protected to make the most impact. Now, scientists have identified the protected areas most critical to preventing extinctions of the world's mammals, birds and amphibians. This could aid future fights against the loss of global biodiversity.

In order to assess different locations and their species, the scientists examined data on 173,000 terrestrial protected areas and assessments of 21,500 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  In the end, the scientists discovered 78 sites comprising 137 protected areas in 34 countries that are exceptionally irreplaceable. Together, they harbor the majority of the populations of more than 600 birds, amphibians and mammals, half of which are globally threatened.

In fact, many of these areas protect species that can be found nowhere else. These include animals such as the critically endangered Laysan duck, which is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, many of these irreplaceable areas are already designated as being of "Outstanding Universal Value" under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

"These exceptional places would all be strong candidates for World Heritage status," said Soizi Le Saout, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Such recognition would ensure effective protection of the unique biodiversity in these areas, given the rigorous standards required for World Heritage sites."

Currently, about half of the land covered by these irreplaceable areas does not have World Heritage recognition. This new study brings light to that fact and may help spur policy makers toward giving additional protections to these sites. That said, there will still be a challenge when it comes to conserving these areas.

"Protected areas can only fulfill their role in reducing biodiversity loss if they are effectively managed," said Simon Stuart, chair of the ICN Species Survival Commission, in a news release. "Given limited conservation budgets, this is not always the case, so governments should pay particular attention to the management effectiveness of highly irreplaceable protected areas."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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