GLAND, Switzerland, November 15, 2013 (ENS) – The world’s most irreplaceable site for threatened species is Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park, a fact that has emerged from new research identifying the protected areas most critical to preventing extinctions.

hummingbird

The Santa Marta woodstar, a hummingbird endemic to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park  (Photo by L.E. Urueña / Birds of Colombia)

Of the world’s 3,057 endangered species, 44 are found in this park near Colombia’s mountainous northern coast, with elevations from sea level to peaks of 5,775 meters (nearly 19,000 feet).

Endangered mammals such as tapirs, cougars and jaguars roam the park. It is inhabited by 440 species of birds, including seven species of endemic hummingbirds, the Santa Marta warbler and the Andean condor.

Environmentally, the biggest threat to the park is deforestation for the cultivation of illicit crops. The presence of indigenous communities has helped to preserve the park, which became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, but they are threatened by disease, poverty and armed conflict.

The new analysis, appearing in the latest edition of the journal “Science,” provides practical advice for improving the effectiveness of such protected areas in conserving global biodiversity.

For the study, researchers from around the world calculated the “irreplaceability” of individual protected areas.

Their analysis is based on data on 173,000 terrestrial protected areas and assessments of 21,500 species on the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN.

Seventy-eight sites that include 137 protected areas in 34 countries have been identified as exceptionally irreplaceable.

Together, they harbor the majority of the populations of more than 600 birds, amphibians, and mammals, half of which are globally threatened.

The analysis compares the contribution each protected area makes to the long-term survival of mammals, birds and amphibians.

“Protected areas can only fulfill their role in reducing biodiversity loss if they are effectively managed,” said Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

“Given limited conservation budgets, that is not always the case, so governments should pay particular attention to the management effectiveness of highly irreplaceable protected areas,” said Stuart.

In many cases these areas protect species that cannot be found anywhere else, such as the Critically Endangered Laysan Duck, Anas laysanensis, endemic to the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the 13 species of amphibians that inhabit Canaima National Park in Venezuela.

blue monkey

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis, in Tanzania (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson)

Many of these irreplaceable areas are already designated as being of Outstanding Universal Value under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. These sites include Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Peru’s Manu National Park, and India’s Western Ghats.

Yet, half the land covered by the irreplaceable areas identified in this study does not have World Heritage recognition.

This includes Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains National Park and Cuba’s Cienaga de Zapata Wetland of International Importance.

“These exceptional places would all be strong candidates for World Heritage status,” says Soizic Le Saout, lead author of the study. “Such recognition would ensure effective protection of the unique biodiversity in these areas, given the rigorous standards required for World Heritage sites.”

Unlike previous assessments that focussed on increasing the number of protected sites, this study highlights the need for, and provides guidance for, upgrading inadequate management of existing protected areas.

“Páramo Urrao National Protective Forests Reserves, in Colombia, for example, does not really exist,” says Paul Salaman, an expert in Colombian biodiversity and CEO of the Rainforest Trust. “It was legally created in 1975, but this was never translated into on-the-ground management.”

This study builds on work undertaken by an extensive network of experts to gather and analyse data for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ and the World Database on Protected Areas.

It is the result of an international collaboration between the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France, the IUCN through its Species Survival Commission and World Commission on Protected Areas, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and BirdLife International.

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