The most important areas for biodiversity conservation are neglected under current protection efforts, researchers say.
Scientists from the US-based University of California San Diego (UCSD) investigated whether current methods of locating conservation reserves are adequate to deal with future environmental changes.
They found that the need for conservation will shift geographically in the future, towards tropical regions that are high in biodiversity but poor in the resources needed to protect them.
"Many reserves are far away from where we know they will be needed: the tropics," Tien Ming Lee, a graduate student at UCSD, told SciDev.Net.
The researchers analysed four models of projected climate and land use change to 2100.
The study found that some tropical regions, such as South-East Asia, have already been heavily impacted by land use changes, and will continue to be so. But it also finds tropical Africa — previously thought to be under smaller risk — now vulnerable.
Conventional methods for choosing conservation areas — some 12 per cent of the Earth's land area — are often based on past threats, says Walter Jetz, assistant professor of biology at UCSD and author of the study.
"This approach is not completely wrong in the short-term. However, it becomes a problem in the long run — 50 to 100 years — as the environment is not static and will change."
The researchers advocate a North–South transfer of conservation resources. "Climate change impacts on biodiversity disregard administrative and political boundaries — global coordination of effective biodiversity protection efforts is mandatory," says Jetz.
"We will not be able to make any sensible level of response without unprecedented levels of cooperation among countries and across societies to share resources, skills and knowledge," says Georgina Mace, of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at the UK-based Imperial College London.
William Laurence, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says, "Clearly, the biggest threat to global biodiversity is the rampant destruction of tropical forests, and it will be crucial for richer countries to help bear the economic burden of conserving these unique ecosystems."
The study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi 10.1098/rspb.2007.1732 (2008)