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Mismatch between protected areas and freshwater biodiversity

October 4, 2012

BioFresh’s latest policy brief explains that freshwater species appear to provide the best surrogates for conservation planning. Yet regions of high freshwater biodiversity, threats, and dependence on the ecosystem services they provide often do not overlap with protected areas.

Freshwaters make up less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, but contain over 10% of all known species. What’s more is that many people depend on freshwater biodiversity for their livelihoods. Freshwater ecosystems contribute to vital services ranging from food and energy security to water purification and recreation. But centres of freshwater biodiversity and species richness that are often not covered by protected areas coincide with high levels of rural poverty. Action in these areas might maximise benefits to both conservation and people’s livelihoods.

Fishermen on the River Congo

But planning efforts focused on birds and mammals may miss critical habitats for freshwater biodiversity. This is because these better-known species don’t always act as the best surrogates for conservation planning, research conducted by members of BioFresh shows. The research, on which the latest policy brief is based, analysed biodiversity data from the African continent and shows that the protected areas network under-represents freshwater biodiversity. According to Will Darwall, lead author of the new study, the “analysis indicates that individual freshwater groups are significantly better surrogates for birds, mammals, and amphibians than vice versa”.

The study used new and previously available data and looked at the habitats of over 7,500 freshwater and terrestrial species for comparison and overlaid that with protected areas across Africa. The new data on freshwater species included all known species of fish, crabs, molluscs, dragonflies and damselflies. The habitats of freshwater species were also compared with maps of infant mortality rates and the location of proposed dams.

The controversial Tekeze dam in Ethiopia. Photo: Wikimedia commons

As well as demonstrating that conservation research and management have been focusing on species groups that are poor surrogates for patterns of both species richness and threats for many freshwater groups, the study also shows that the areas of highest species richness and threat from development overlap with areas where people’s dependence on freshwater ecosystem services are high. Given the scale of planned development of water resources across Africa, the rewards from intervention at this relatively early stage are potentially huge and could represent an opportunity for Africa to avoid significant economic costs of eventual restoration of inland waters incurred in many other parts of the world.

Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus). Native to southern Africa, this fish has become an invasive species in many parts of the world. Photo: Creative Commons.

Although the research is specific to Africa, the findings have more general implications for development projects such as dams, the designation of protected areas, and suggests the need to re-assess our focus for conservation planning  in order to better manage and conserve freshwater biodiversity. The research also highlights the need to obtain more data specifically on freshwater species instead of relying on birds and mammals to act as surrogates for conservation planning.

But the study also raises some new questions for the freshwater conservation community. Firstly, how do we assess, map and value freshwater-related ecosystem services? And secondly, how do we incorporate freshwater species conservation planning into integrated catchment and water management? Any thoughts, queries, or comments on these questions or anything covered in the post are gladly welcomed below.

The BioFresh policy brief is based on the paper: ‘Implications of bias in conservation research and investment for freshwater species” by William R.T. Darwall et al. in the journal Conservation Letters, vol 4, pp. 474-482, 2011

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 16, 2012 15:34

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