Crossroads blog | 17 Jan, 2024

We must conserve the right places to halt extinction and reduce biodiversity loss

The world's countries are conserving more places. But in some cases, what's being protected isn't what would make the biggest difference for biodiversity. As Andrew Plumptre writes, we need a clearer definition of what it is we truly should be conserving. 

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Photo: Teo Tarras/Shutterstock

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) approved in December 2022 was a historical milestone towards creating a nature-positive world. The framework has four ambitious goals and 23 targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of people and the planet. But while the GBF highlights the need to focus on protecting "areas of particular importance for biodiversity", it left the way forward unclear because it did not include a definition of these places. This lack of clear direction could lead to a substantial increase in protected areas worldwide that at the same time fails to safeguard the most significant places for nature.

We will only succeed in halting extinctions and ecosystem collapse and reversing biodiversity loss if the sites identified for protection are in the right places.

The challenge isn’t new. The previous Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 used the same phrase to guide where protection should occur during 2010-2020. It successfully promoted a large rise in protected areas targeting 17% of land and 10% of seas, but in the absence of adequate guidance, countries tended to protect sites that were more remote from people and that were less suitable for agriculture rather than those that are important for biodiversity. With the world facing a worsening nature crisis and with only seven years to go to achieve the GBF goals and targets, we cannot afford to make the same mistake again. We need to agree on a definition now of "areas of particular importance for biodiversity" for countries to use.

In an attempt to provide a more robust definition of such areas, I worked with a group of scientists from across the world to propose a definition that incorporates the many different biodiversity features, such as threatened biodiversity, geographically-restricted biodiversity, or ecological integrity.

Better defining ‘areas of particular importance for biodiversity’

Goal A of the GBF aims to halt extinctions and ecosystem collapse, and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Target 1 encourages governments to develop national spatial plans for biodiversity, while Target 3 commits countries to expanding protected and conserved areas (Box 1). However, we will only succeed in halting extinctions and ecosystem collapse and reversing biodiversity loss if the sites identified for biodiversity in spatial planning and for protection are in the right places.


In both these targets it is recognised that we must focus these actions on "areas of particular importance for biodiversity" or "areas of high biodiversity importance". However, there was no clear definition of what these phrases meant during the deliberations that led to the GBF, despite many interventions requesting draft language that could go in a glossary or in the targets themselves.

Given this lack of clarity, we propose a more robust definition for ‘areas of importance for biodiversity’, which we describe in a recently published paper in the scientific journal One Earth. We reviewed the various approaches used to identify areas as important for biodiversity, many of which are narrowly focused on specific taxonomic groups. Many approaches rely on qualitative (rather than numeric) data in their criteria. For example, the five ‘best’ sites for plants in a country, or areas containing an ‘important’ proportion of the population of a marine mammal. Such imprecise terms makes it hard to standardise an approach and the results may be rather subjective.

We believe that quantitative criteria, while requiring more data, have the advantage that they are transparent, can be validated, and allow comparisons between sites and between countries and regions of the world. We propose that the criteria used to identify Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are the most comprehensive for identifying areas of importance for biodiversity (Figure 1), and that by being quantitative they allow standardised comparisons to be made. The data on KBAs are also freely available to governments and the conservation community through the KBA website, underpinned by the World Database of KBAs.

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Figure 1. Comparison of the biodiversity features considered by the KBA criteria with those considered by other approaches for identifying areas of importance for biodiversity. Figure from Plumptre et al., 2024.

Andrew Plumptre

The criteria used to identify KBAs focus on particular biodiversity features: globally threatened species and ecosystems; geographically restricted species, species assemblages and ecosystems; sites of outstanding ecological integrity; biological processes; and irreplaceability (Figure 1). KBA status is based on threshold amounts of the global population of a species, global extent of an ecosystem, or most intact sites within an ecoregion. For example, for a site to qualify as a global KBA for a geographically restricted species it needs 10% threshold or more of the species global population at a site; for a critically endangered species only 0.5% of the global population at a site is needed to trigger KBA status; and for an endangered ecosystem 5% of the global extent of the ecosystem is needed at a site to meet KBA status. They therefore identify sites that are globally significant for nature, and their protection and conservation will contribute to halting and reversing the loss of species or ecosystems.

We recognise that ecological connectivity between important sites is also important for biodiversity persistence. Assessing the globally significant populations and ecosystems in KBAs that need to be connected to maintain viability is one way in which KBAs can be used to prioritise where connectivity needs to be maintained or enhanced.

For the purposes of the GBF, we propose harnessing the KBA criteria such that areas of particular importance for biodiversity are defined as: Sites that contain significant populations/extents of threatened or geographically restricted species or ecosystems, or that have significant ecological integrity or irreplaceability, are significant for the maintenance of biological processes, or provide significant ecological connectivity to maintain the broader viability of KBAs. Significance is defined by a site exceeding a quantitative threshold of the global distribution of the biodiversity feature supported.

Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP) approaches are likely to be used for many of the spatial plans developed for Target 1. These employ analytical tools and software to identify sites for conservation that aim to minimise the area needed by considering ‘complementarity’ between potential areas to include. In SCP the species, ecosystems, and conservation objectives need to be identified and applied. Incorporating areas meeting the definition would strengthen any SCP output.

Even in South Africa, which has one of the most comprehensive plans for biodiversity conservation of any country, a recent assessment of KBAs identified sites (particularly for geographically restricted but non-threatened biodiversity) that were missing, but are now being incorporated into a revised national conservation plan. Countries such as Canada, Mozambique, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru are all working on making comprehensive assessments of their KBAs to guide their biodiversity conservation action. Mozambique completed the first comprehensive assessment in 2021 and have incorporated their KBAs in the National Territorial Plan that guides government supported development and plan to use a new offset law to support the financing of these sites.

There are only seven years remaining for the implementation of the GBF, and it is critical that countries start identifying where they will conserve to achieve their contribution to protecting and conserving 30% of the world by 2030, as well as determining which important sites for nature should be incorporated into their spatial plans. To halt and reverse the tide of biodiversity loss, we have to agree and apply a definition for areas of particular importance for biodiversity that ensures all conservation objectives are met. Our proposed definition aims to achieve this.

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User name: Stephano mathews
on Tue, 23 Jan 2024 by Stephano mathews (not verified)

I wish to commend that everyone has to indeed embrace the culture of conserving biodiversity at local level. This will help to conserve other endangered species and also curb the adverse impacts of climate change that we are currently facing globally. If possible would you please consider our country (Malawi) to be part of your target country since this is beneficial to our country too.

Kindly regards

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User name: Julian Selman
on Tue, 23 Jan 2024 by Julian Selman (not verified)

Surely, if there is a biodiversity crisis due to rapid decline of many species, including insects, birds, trees and sealife, we cannot cherry-pick and decide on the merits of one area against another. All biodiversity needs protecting and enhancing so that nature can thrive and recover. We would be better off addressing the causes of the decline and targeting those e.g. deforestation, plastic/chemical pollution in our oceans, farming and use of pesticides, housing development, light pollution

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User name: Michael Buff Guthardt
on Wed, 24 Jan 2024 by Michael Buff G… (not verified)

My family owns a land in Colombia 1 hour away from Medellin.(34 Ha.) I have tried to find sponsorship for returning the land to native woodland with no response. It this something you could help with?

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User name: Ashley Vosper
on Sun, 04 Feb 2024 by Ashley Vosper (not verified)

I wonder if there would be a way when selecting KBAs or other criterion that it could in some way incorporate a MP (or something similar)? Maybe a two step process, select KBA site using your new definition and step 2 devise a MP to protect this site long term. Otherwise we select KBA sites and then what?

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User name: Sixto J Inchaustegui
on Sun, 04 Feb 2024 by Sixto J Inchaustegui (not verified)

I see that no SIDS country is mentioned on developing actions to include/consider kBAs in their conservation action plans. We are at a good time to promote this among SIDS countries, In the case of insular Caribbean the Caribbean Ecosystems Partnership Fund promotes conservation actions in relation to KBAs, but we need to promote more the formal inclusion in national GBF related strategies.

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User name: Dee mcphaill
on Wed, 21 Feb 2024 by Dee mcphaill (not verified)

All true conservationists understand that those practices have a huge negative evasive impact on wildlife. We are not even talking about the top 5 in Africa. Pangolins, red wolves, sea horses, panthers and many more fall victims everyday to private interests.
I know that stopp8ng that massive impact on wildl7f3 seems to difficult to deal with. Yet, meant measures should be put in place, to start dealing with what I call a disease based on personal gain & greed.Roadside zoos should never be legal

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