Measuring success: The path to real conservation gains

As conservation leaders contemplate new goals for preventing species extinctions worldwide, emerging technologies can help target and track their progress.
Map of Asia showing protected areas.

While Mongolia conserves a relatively small area of its country (green), it manages to protect a high percentage of its species, according to species protection index.

The last decade has seen important but insufficient progress in protecting areas that are home to endangered species worldwide, conservation leaders say. As governments prepare to discuss new conservation goals at the 2022 U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, Yale’s Walter Jetz and colleagues argue that key scientific advances in measuring conservation success can support better progress in the coming decade.

Writing in a recent issue of the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, they make the case that novel ways to integrate global data can improve national efforts to estimate the numbers and locations of endangered species and prevent extinctions.

In an interview, Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of the environment at Yale and one of chief architects of the groundbreaking Map of Life, discusses how these new tools, along with the combination of local observations and remote sensing, can support more effective conservation of the world’s biological diversity.

What has been the impact of policies adopted at the last U.N. Biodiversity Summit in 2010?

Walter Jetz: The previous international commitments for biodiversity conservation— the Aichi 2020 Targets [adopted in 2010] — which, for example stipulated a designation of 17% of lands and 10% of oceans as protected areas, resulted in some important progress. But overall, the activities it spurred were insufficient. Many of the agreed-on targets were missed, and we continue to witness major biodiversity decline.

It’s widely recognized that this failure was largely due to a lack of linking goals to measurements, i.e., putting robust biodiversity status and trend measurements alongside goals in order to support and engage nations around achieving them.

What are some of the shortcomings that need to be addressed at the 2022 summit?

Jetz: As parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meet to sanction a new global biodiversity framework and specific targets for 2030, they will need to address threats that contribute to species extinctions. One draft target, for instance, stipulates the preservation of 30% of land and sea by 2030 through effective reserves and sound area-based conservation. However, a focus only on the amount of area preserved without accurate measures of how well they represent species populations is at minimum inefficient and at worst unhelpful for conserving biodiversity.

Then how do we track progress in species conservation and prevent extinction?

Jetz: Scientific advances, including those advanced at Yale in the Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, now provide us with new, globally comparable measures of biodiversity representation in conservation areas. The metrics we developed in collaboration with international partners combine existing records with remotely sensed data to map detailed global distribution of species. This will allow us to assess whether a sufficiently large portion of the population is under some form of protection. Instead of simply measuring increases in protected areas, say, 30% of land, anyone can evaluate how these expansions translate into positive biodiversity outcomes, including an increase in the proportion of species sufficiently safeguarded.

These innovative measurements have now become possible through a strong growth in data- and global remote sensing technologies. This information can help inform government policies and support anyone, including local and regional stakeholders, to use best-possible evidence in their conservation and resource management decisions.

Some of the new products and tools can be found at the Map of Life website.

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