Oct 12

The cost of establishing protected areas for nature and reducing the risk of extinction for threatened species across the globe could amount to about $76 billion, according to a new study.

Razo lark image

On account of its small range, the Razo lark would be relatively inexpensive to save

The cost of unmet targets

Back in 2002, an agreement was reached by governments across the world to achieve a significant reduction in global biodiversity loss by 2010, but unfortunately this target was far from met. Further agreements to reduce the rate of human-induced extinctions and to improve protected areas by 2020 were agreed at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Japan in 2010, yet progress towards these goals also appears to be somewhat limited, due in part to a lack of clarity surrounding the financial costs of such an undertaking.

To tackle this issue, an international collaboration of conservation groups and universities has carried out a study to determine the likely costs of achieving these goals, including the financial backing required to ensure that, by 2020, protected areas cover 17% of land and inland water areas.

Reducing the extinction threat for all species would cost five billion U.S. dollars a year, but establishing and maintaining a comprehensive global network of protected areas would cost substantially more,” said Donal McCarthy, environmental economist from the RSPB and leader of the study. “It could be up to 76 billion dollars annually to meet both targets.”

In their paper, published recently in the journal Science, researchers also warned that such figures were likely to increase should conservation action be delayed.

Indian rhino image

The Indian rhino is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Calculating cost

Conservation data on 211 species of globally threatened birds was used to analyse the cost of improving the conservation status of each bird by one category on the IUCN Red List. These results were then used as the basis of a model which then extrapolated the costs of conservation for all threatened bird species. When coupled with further data on the conservation of threatened mammals, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates and plants, this model could predict the costs across all threatened species.

The researchers also gathered information on the costs of protecting sites from threats such as deforestation, poaching and over-harvesting, as well as the financial responsibilities associated with improving existing conservation zones.

The researchers acknowledged that the costs involved in saving individual species vary as widely as the strategies required to save them, from controlling poaching to eradicating invasive species, yet some encouraging results emerged.

A key finding of our analysis was that the most highly threatened species tend to be relatively cheap to save on account of their small range sizes, such as the Razo lark, which lives on the island of Razo in the Cape Verde islands,” said Mr McCarthy. “Experts say conserving the species would cost less than one hundred thousand a year over the next ten years.”

Tiger image

Bengal tiger cubs resting

Putting it into perspective

The figures resulting from the data analysis may seem enormous, but when compared to government budgets and global expenditures, Mr McCarthy pointed out that it is a small price to pay. “These are just a fraction of what we as consumers spend on soft drinks each year which is almost half a trillion dollars – the total required for species and sites is less than half of what is paid out in bonuses to bankers on Wall street’s biggest investment banks,” he said.

To truly put matters into perspective, the amount required to reduce biodiversity loss is a mere 1% of the value of ecosystems currently being lost annually.

Philippine eagle image

Philippine eagle

Strategise and optimise

Despite this perspective, however, some scientists, including Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds, are not convinced that the global economy can afford such large sums given the current economic crisis. “Some species in some places are absolutely crucial to the way the ecosystem works, but that may not be the case in other places,” he said. So rather than trying to save everything everywhere, I think we need to be more strategic, in a very money-limited world, to optimise conservation targets rather than to maximise all biodiversity everywhere.”

Yet Mr McCarthy and his colleagues disagree. Stuart Butchart, the global research co-coordinator at BirdLife International in Cambridge, underlined the importance of nature to human wellbeing, one of the challenges currently facing those attending the CBD meeting in India this week. “These aren’t bills, they are investments in natural capital, because they are dwarfed by the benefits we get back from nature, the ecosystem services, such as pollination of crops, regulation of climate, and the provision of clean water,” he said. Governments have found vast sums to prop up the financial infrastructure of the world. It’s even more vital to keep our natural infrastructure from failing.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Scientists say billions required to meet conservation targets and at The Guardian – Cost of saving endangered species £50bn a year, say experts.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author