Protecting 1.2% of Earth’s land would stop ‘sixth great extinction,’ scientists say

Expanding Earth’s protected areas by just 1.2 percent could halt the extinction of most threatened species, according to a groundbreaking new study.

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A recent analysis by a coalition of conservationists and researchers suggests that expanding the world’s protected land areas by just 1.2% could prevent the extinction of most threatened animal and plant species. This study, led by Dr. Eric Dinerstein, senior biodiversity expert at the NGO RESOLVE, highlights the urgent need for targeted conservation efforts to avert a looming biodiversity crisis.

Dr. Dinerstein and his team identified 16,825 potential conservation sites that need to be prioritized within the next five years to save thousands of rare species. “Most species on Earth are rare, meaning that species either have very narrow ranges or they occur at very low densities or both,” Dinerstein explained in a press release from Frontiers in Science. He emphasized that “rarity is very concentrated,” and their study revealed that only about 1.2 percent of the Earth’s surface needs protection to prevent the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

Between 2018 and 2023, an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of land were designated as protected to meet global conservation targets. However, the research team questioned whether these new protected areas were adequately safeguarding essential biodiversity. They found that the new lands protected only a small portion of the habitats of threatened and range-limited species—just 0.11 million square kilometers. This finding underscores the importance of strategically planning protected areas to maximize their conservation impact.

Using six levels of biodiversity data, the scientists mapped the entire planet to identify remaining habitats for rare and threatened species. They combined satellite images with maps of existing conservation areas to identify unprotected biodiversity hotspots, which they termed Conservation Imperatives. These hotspots serve as a global blueprint to guide regional and national conservation planning efforts.

If adequately protected, the sites identified by the researchers—covering roughly 405.25 million acres—could prevent all projected extinctions. Concentrating protection efforts in the tropics alone could avert most of these extinctions. Notably, the team found that 38% of Conservation Imperatives are near areas that are already protected, making it easier to integrate them into current conservation frameworks or find additional means of protection.

“These sites are home to over 4,700 threatened species in some of the world’s most biodiverse yet threatened ecosystems,” said Andy Lee, a co-author of the study and senior program associate at RESOLVE. This includes not only mammals and birds that rely on large intact habitats, such as the tamaraw in the Philippines and the Celebes crested macaque in Sulawesi, Indonesia, but also range-restricted amphibians and rare plant species.

The cost of protecting these critical areas was estimated using data from 14 years of land protection projects. The analysis took into account the amount and type of land acquired, as well as country-specific economic factors. Protecting the Conservation Imperatives in the tropics would cost approximately $34 billion per year over the next five years. This amount represents less than 0.2% of the United States’ GDP and less than 9 percent of the annual subsidies benefiting the global fossil fuel industry.

Professor Neil Burgess, head of the science program at the United Nations Environment Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Center, noted that achieving 30 percent coverage by protected and conserved areas alone is not enough. “It is the location, quality, and effectiveness of these protected and conserved areas that will determine whether they fulfill their role in contributing to halting biodiversity loss,” he stated, as reported by The Guardian.

Indigenous Peoples and communities with jurisdiction over the Conservation Imperative sites, along with worldwide stakeholders and other civil society members, will need to provide input on effective conservation strategies. These collaborative efforts are essential to ensure that conservation plans are culturally appropriate and locally supported.

Protecting biodiversity is also critical for tackling the climate crisis. Forests, which house abundant wildlife, act as vital carbon sinks, sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “What will we bequeath to future generations? A healthy, vibrant Earth is critical for us to pass on,” Dinerstein stressed. “We’ve got to get going. We’ve got to head off the extinction crisis. Conservation Imperatives drive us to do that.”

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