How do we protect biodiversity?

Biodiversity as a whole forms a shield protecting each of the species that together compose it, ourselves included.” — E.O. Wilson, “Half-Earth”

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth at all its levels from genes to ecosystems.  Biodiversity is important because it provides us with:

  • Our pollinators: bees, butterflies, birds, bats
  • Our predators: frogs, ladybugs, wolves, bobcats, lions
  • Our food supplies: fish, shellfish, caribou, mushrooms, crop diversity
  • Our medicines: asthma drug Theophallin from cacao trees; rosy periwinkle from Madagascar provides a drug to treat leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease; Eribulin is a drug created from a chemical found in sea sponges and is used to treat breast cancer; the Eastern Red Cedar (found here in Georgia) has been discovered to contain a compound that fights antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Our clean air: photosynthesizing species produce oxygen, can sequester carbon dioxide emissions, and some indoor plants such as the Peace Lily and Spider plant can remove formaldehyde (a carcinogen) from the air
  • Our clean water: forest s help soil absorbs rainfall and recharge aquifers; wetlands are excellent at phytoremediation (plants cleaning hazards from soil and water)
  • Our healthy soil: soils are ecosystems which help with water storage, nutrient cycling, plant growth, and much more
  • Our raw materials: wood, biofuels, and plant oils
  • Our livelihoods: besides providing jobs, a diverse natural environment contributes to the emotional and spiritual well-being of humans
  • Our Earth: greater biodiversity means a more resilient ecosystem which can better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters

How do we prioritize which areas of the world receive biodiversity protection?  Where do we send people and money to protect the biodiversity we have remaining?  Who is responsible for protecting biodiversity?

These are all good questions.  This job is too big for just one or two organizations.  And how would one country respond to another country telling them what they can and cannot do with their natural resources?  We do the best we can, one step at a time.

Norman Myers in 1988 coined the term “biodiversity hotspot.”  According to Myers a biodiversity hotspot must meet two criteria. It must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat. There have been 34 hotpots identified.  This thought is great if one is trying to prioritize where the most good can be done with the limited resources we have available.  But what about other areas of the world which do not meet these criteria?  Are they not just as worthy of protection? 

Ecosystem services provided by biodiversity is not site specific and what we do to protect resources in one area will not necessarily protect the ecosystem services in another area.  Protecting Yellowstone National Park provides carbon sequestration for the world, but the jobs, pollinators, and clean water it provides is local and not going to help people living in Madagascar.

In our efforts to systematically determine where the money and resources are directed to protect the most species, we have forgotten that every ecosystem is unique and has a purpose.  A desert, although not as biologically diverse as the tropical rainforests of Belize, is just as important for the ecosystem services it provides. 

Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier wrote an article in American Scientist calling for a protection of “biodiversity coldspots”.  They called attention to areas around the world which we consider species-poor such as the world’s steppes, the Serengeti, and the wild Arctic.  They claim there are other relevant factors such as ecological theory, ecosystem services, and sociopolitical realism need consideration when we prioritize where we send people, money, and resources.

I guess it is back to the drawing board.  How do we protect biodiversity around the world so that all humans benefit from the ecosystem services provided?  Do we prioritize on the value of ecosystem services instead of the value of the number of species as Myers has suggested?  How much would you value a glass of clean drinking water versus protecting tropical rain forest thousands of miles away from your home?

Photo: Cedar Waxwing on Eastern Red Cedar by Ken Thomas
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