Categorized | ESA, Imperiled Wildlife

Is Greed Ever Good for Conservation?

The short and unexpected answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ A study reported in Science by Joppa and colleagues determined that not only were two major goals for global plant conservation compatible, but a newly-designed priority-setting scheme for plants would in turn protect regions on the planet where large numbers of endemic birds, amphibians, and mammals also lived. Greed was an essential component to reconciling these several conservation goals.

A fundamental tenet of most conservation planning is to identify regions that contain many species. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aspires to formally protect at least 17% of the terrestrial world. Through the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, the CBD also seeks to protect at least 60% of the earth’s plant species. The study by Joppa and his colleagues asked: are these targets of protecting area and species mutually compatible?

To solve this question, biologists at Duke and NC State universities teamed with computer specialists at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England. Their solution relied upon a ‘greedy algorithm’ that accumulated species found only within a progressively larger set of regions. The greed refers to first picking the regions with the highest species densities (number per unit area), followed by areas that add progressively fewer new species to the aggregated total. In practice this meant that the first 43 regions were all islands, followed by tropical Costa Rica and Panama. A practical advantage of the greedy algorithm as noted by the authors was that this technique created a continuous, smooth curve of increasing areas and species.

This greedy algorithm revealed that 67% of plant species lived entirely inside regions that comprised only 17% of the planet’s terrestrial surface area. Whether the greedy algorithm was optimized for number of endemic species or for all species, it still gave similar results.

Interestingly, the greedy algorithm performed better than another widely-heralded priority-setting scheme – biodiversity hotspots. Indeed, the formal optimization used by Joppa and colleagues protected 59% of endemic species whereas hotspots could only corral 44% on that same amount of land area. The greedy approach also captured 74% of plant species, a number that the hotspot approach could not even estimate at all.

Best of all, plant regions highlighted with the greedy algorithm were good for the planet’s terrestrial vertebrates. Within the same 17% of the earth where two-thirds of all plants live, 89% of bird species, 80% of amphibian species, and 74% of mammal species also occur.

When it comes to setting conservation priorities, perhaps fictional Gordon Gecko was right: “Greed works.”

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

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Chris Haney oversees Defenders’ Conservation Science program as its chief scientist. He provides research and analysis to guide and support Defenders’ science-based policy and advocacy needs for endangered species, marine science, wildlife biology, forest ecology and management, and conservation policy. He has published extensively, with his work featured in Conservation Biology, Natural History, Ecological Economics, Limnology and Oceanography, Marine Policy, Natural Areas Journal, and others.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.