Biodiversity Hotspots as a Conservation Strategy: Not So “Hot”?


I’ve always loathed the either-or, true-false question that students are often frustrated with. That, however, is the kind of question I faced as a 14-year-old on a father-daughter whitewater-rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

During the bus ride that brought my father and I to the launch point, we watched a video about the triumphs of whitewater-rafting pioneers as well as the woe in environmentalists’ inability to save Grand Canyon’s sister Glen Canyon from being dammed. The film’s before-and-after footage depicting the disappearance of Glen Canyon’s wispy hues toyed with my emotions, and I couldn’t imagine anything but the pristine canyon safeguarded from human profligacy. Nonetheless, a few hours later while the Colorado River licked the shore of our campsite, my father had the nerve to say he also would have dammed Glen Canyon since it provided people with water and hydropower. My anger at him waned after I realized that it was really directed towards the either-or extremes of the question at hand—leave the canyon entirely alone, or drown the ecosystem to meet human needs. Was there no middle ground?

This polarized question is inherent in the contemporary “hotspots strategy” for protecting organismal biodiversity, valued for medicinal opportunity, food and material provision, and protection from natural disaster. The policy, crafted by Norman Myers of the University of Oxford in 1988, funnels funding into “hotspots,” threatened regions that harbor high species “richness,” or large plant diversity. Today, Conservation International (CI) embraces 34 hotspots home to 50% of world plant species, hoping to protect them by establishing national parks and prohibiting human use and settlement.

CI’s track record has not been so hot, however. By cordoning off these areas, the policy pits humans’ wellbeing against nature’s. In fact, this tension is exacerbated by the fact that the 34 hotspots are also home to some of the most impoverished human populations in places like Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. Increasingly, with millions of already destitute people now estranged from their homes and income, governments have had to make some tough choices. For instance, in 2005 Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki returned Amboseli National Park to its original Maasi inhabitants, a reflection of burgeoning discontent.

With more aid from the international community, the picture doesn’t get any better. When revealed in 2007, Ecuador’s ITT-Initiative to safeguard Amazonian rainforest from oil extraction was hailed by environmentalists as “unprecedented.” Ecuadorian President Correa promised protection and no drilling in parts of the Yasuni National Park hotspot on the condition that international donors would reimburse half of lost oil revenue. When the money failed to materialize this past August, however, Correa abandoned the initiative, opening the park up to the petroleum industry.

In addition to this notion of a vacillating pendulum incapable of finding a middle ground, the hotspots strategy is riddled with a spectrum of logistical concerns. For instance, the system exhibits a mismatch between species richness and endemism. A 2013 study analyzing the effectiveness of the hotspots approach and its species richness benchmark in the Southern Central Andes of Argentina discovered that only 19% of endemic species had half of their range protected. This was due to safeguarding the highest plant diversity regions in humid forests with little endemism while largely disregarding the less rich but highly endemic arid regions.

This incongruity causes the hotspots paradigm to neglect the world’s largest tropical desert, the Sahara. The locale’s low species richness renders it insignificant by hotspots standards; though the Sahara covers half of Africa’s landmass, it received only 12% of Global Environment Facility funding to Africa from 1991-2009. The result is that 12 of 14 large vertebrates endemic to the Sahara are considered by the IUCN Red List to be either extinct or in danger of extinction—a drastic blow to insight scientists can gleam about genetic bases to water stress and extreme temperatures.

Thus, what we need to both circumvent such shortcomings and create a middle ground in conservation is a shift in paradigm away from biodiversity hotspots. In order to augment public salience for conservation, we must emphasize ecosystems whose degradation affects human wellbeing—whether that includes such services as water filtration and climate regulation or food provision and inspiration, an “ecosystems services” approach championed by chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva. The answer thus lies not in alienating humans from the environment, but rather in establishing them as stakeholders in their communities. Sustainable use programs on a local level entailing reforestation, ecotourism, and even market-based approaches like transferable fish quotas can go a long way in transforming the otherwise either-or conservation question into a multi-faceted approach.