September 1, 2006
Good news from the conservation front is rare, so the article that starts on p. 723 of this issue of BioScience, by L. J. Gorenflo and Katrina Brandon, is worth a careful look. The researchers examined priority "gap" locations around the world that had previously been identified as lying outside existing protected areas but harboring species vulnerable to extinction; these locations occur disproportionately in the tropics, on islands, and in mountains. Gorenflo and Brandon analyzed the priority gap locations, at high spatial resolution, in terms of their human population density, land use or land cover, and suitability for agriculture. The surprise, and the good news, is that in many priority gap locations, these human factors—which the authors see as crucial ones—are conducive to conservation. These locations had contiguous tracts of more than 10,000 hectares of conservation-compatible habitat, sparse human population, and poor suitability for agriculture. Most of the gap locations did not feature high levels of threat caused by humans.
Considering the importance of the three human factors individually in the priority gap locations suggests that human presence is a hindrance to conservation in coastal areas worldwide and on several islands, such as Hispaniola, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, and Puerto Rico. It also suggests that agricultural potential could hinder conservation efforts in parts of the Andes, central Mexico, and parts of Brazil and Africa.
Such a global outlook might seem to have little to do with real, on-the-ground conservation decisions, which are usually political compromises between stakeholders with different agendas. True, the lack of global data prevented Gorenflo and Brandon from considering many human factors (such as form of governance) that are important in determining whether a protected area is established. Nonetheless, some global trends in human behavior suggest that the sort of extended gap analysis Gorenflo and Brandon describe could help in conservation decisionmaking.
Governments are not the only players able to conserve biodiversity. Globalization means that corporations have the power to take meaningful steps to protect the environment, and many are increasingly anxious to protect the public image of their brands. No matter that this is largely enlightened self-interest: The results can be significant. As a consequence of pressure from investors, customers, and employees, some major companies are now taking voluntary steps to reduce their environmental impacts. Thanks to the Web, worldwide communication is both convenient and immediate, and companies large and small are learning that there is such a thing as bad publicity, including publicity about poor environmental performance.
Activists have long sought to persuade companies to demonstrate their corporate good citizenship in environmental affairs. Detailed knowledge of sites worldwide that are promising prospects for conservation might well help, by suggesting how companies can burnish their brand images with conservation dollars. Further study of human factors in priority conservation sites might also suggest which companies can be persuaded to help prevent extinctions. Conservationists stand ready to accept allies wherever they find them.
Timothy M. Beardsley
Editor in Chief