What is a “biodiversity hotspot” and how is it different from other conservation and protected areas?

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

— Aldo Leopold

In earlier posts, we defined the term “biodiversity”, reviewed the major threats to biodiversity, and identified a variety of protection strategies. Today, we’ll continue our definitions discussion by reviewing terms that are frequently used to classify species and the land they depend upon. While this topic may sound as exciting as a colonoscopy, it will help us speak the same language as we explore the world’s most amazing places for biodiversity and wildlife. These biodiversity hotspots are our top priority for conservation.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Let’s start with the term “biodiversity hotspot.” A biodiversity hotspot has a very specific meaning. British ecologist Norman Myers first used the term “hotspot” in a paper that he wrote in 1988. In his paper, Myers identified ten tropical forest “hotspots” that contained large numbers of endemic plants and high levels of habitat loss. By “endemic”, we mean a species that is native to a single defined geographic region. The non-governmental organization Conservation International then took this hotspot idea and ran with it. Today, the “biodiversity hotspot” is the key concept underlying the organization’s conservation priorities. As Conservation International points out on its website, to qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria:

  1. The region must have at least 1,500 endemic vascular plant species. These places contain a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on earth and are irreplaceable.
  2. The region must have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation. In other words, these are highly threatened areas.

Today, Conservation International has identified 36 biodiversity hotspots on the planet. These biodiversity hotspots represent only 2.4% of the Earth’s land surface but support more than half of the world’s endemic plant species and ~43% of endemic bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species.

Biodiversity hotspots also account for 35% of the “ecosystem services” that human populations depend upon. Ecosystem services are the processes through which natural ecosystems and their constituent species sustain and fulfill human life. We all enjoy ecosystem services that are often taken for granted, such as the pollination of crops and natural vegetation, the purification of water and air, climate regulation, flood and pest control, soil retention, and detoxification and decomposition of waste. Studies calculate that the Earth’s biosphere provides anywhere from US$ 16 to US$ 125 trillion worth of services per year, free of charge, for the good of people, businesses, and the planet.

Where are these “biodiversity hotspots?” Glad you asked! Here is a Conservation International map that gives you a rough idea of their locations.

Don’t worry about the lack of detail provided in the map. We’ll be exploring each of these biodiversity hotspots in future posts. After all, today we’re focused only on definitions!

IUCN Protected Areas

Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you’ve heard of terms like “National Park” or “Wilderness Area”. These terms are part of a classification system created by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN defines a “protected area” as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” If an area meets the criteria of this wordy definition of a protected area, then it is placed into one of six management categories:

  • Ia Strict nature reserve: Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values.
  • Ib Wilderness area: Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.
  • II National park: Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.
  • III Natural monument or feature: Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove.
  • IV Habitat/species management area: Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.
  • V Protected landscape or seascape: Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources: Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims.

Not exactly an easy read, I know. In practice, the lines between these six categories can get blurry. To address this, the IUCN adds a caveat that “the category should be based around the primary management objective(s), which should apply to at least three-quarters of the protected area – the 75 per cent rule.”

On a side note, you may have noticed that the definition of a national park doesn’t say anything about biodiversity. In fact, many U.S. national parks are facetiously referred to as “rock and ice” by some conservationists because of their location in deserts and high mountains and their emphasis on conserving landscape views and unique geological features.

IUCN Red List Categories

The IUCN also creates the “Red List” which places species of animals, plants, and fungi into specific categories that serve as a health indicator of the world’s biodiversity. You’ve heard terms such as “endangered species” and “extinct species”? Well, those are two categories of the IUCN Red List. Below is a graphic from Bird Life International that shows the different IUCN categories. Of course, each category has specific criteria that I won’t go into in this blog post.

Today, more than 128,500 species have been assessed to determine which Red List category they fall in. While that might sound like a lot, it’s not. When you consider that there are millions of species on Earth, you can see that we have a long way to go. Of the 128,500 species that have been assessed so far, more than 35,500 species are threatened with extinction. The graphic below shows the breakdown. To learn more about the IUCN Red List, I encourage you to visit their website at https://www.iucnredlist.org/.

The Red List category for an assessed species can have major downstream ramifications. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations, environmental planners, and businesses use these categories to guide important conservation decisions. From a business perspective, a lot of money can be at stake. The presence of an endangered species can be a showstopper for a proposed development project. That’s why you’ll see some “lively debate” around species classifications.

National, State, and NGO Designations

To add to the list of acronyms for areas that have special significance for biodiversity and wildlife, there are also a wide variety of National, State and non-governmental organization (NGO) designations that you may come across, depending on the country you are in.

A well-known national example in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Refuge designation that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuges are protected areas that are managed with the goal to conserve native species of fish, wildlife, and plants. Today, there are 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the U.S.

For a state-level example in the U.S., California has identified 34 Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS), which are ocean areas that support an unusual variety of aquatic life and often host unique species.

Finally, non-governmental organizations are also in on the act. For example, BirdLife International (a global partnership of NGOs) created the “Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA)” designation to identify sites that are important for the conservation of bird populations. BirdLife International has identified over 13,000 IBAs worldwide. In case you aren’t feeling overwhelmed yet, I will add that IBAs are actually a type of KBA, or Key Biodiversity Area. KBAs are the most important places in the world for species and their habitats. Over 15,000 Key Biodiversity Areas are acknowledged worldwide.

Coming Attractions

Whew! You made it through the alphabet soup of biodiversity-related acronyms. If your eyes glazed over with all the terminology, no worries. Just know that there is a lot of effort being put into identifying, categorizing, and mapping the most important areas in the world from a biodiversity perspective.

In my next series of posts, I’ll be highlighting the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world that have been identified by Conservation International. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Thanks for reading!