BEYOND THE LOCAL: thousands of surveillance cameras confirm that protected areas preserve species diversity

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Although environmental factors such as temperature and vegetation productivity are known to affect species distribution and diversity, the impact of human activities is not as well understood.

This article by Cheng Chen, University of British Columbia and Cole Burton, University of British Columbia originally appeared on Conversation and is republished here with permission.

We have entered what some scientists call Earth’s sixth major extinction. Human disturbances, such as over-cultivation, habitat destruction and invasive species, are major drivers of biodiversity loss. Some studies estimate that the current rate of species extinction is 1,000 times the normal background rate.

One of the most central solutions for biodiversity conservation is to set aside areas for nature. Spaces like National Parks, Community Conserved Areas and Nature Reserves are designed to be protected areas that allow biodiversity to thrive. The Convention on Biological Diversity – the world’s first biodiversity treaty – has set a target of 17% of total land area to be protected by 2020.

Although this goal has not been fully achieved, the effectiveness of existing protected areas has also been questioned, particularly for their success in protecting animals.

Monitoring and Enforcement

Some parks do not have effective enforcement of protections. For example, the Sierra Chinajá in Guatemala is an example of a “paper park” where the land is designated as protected, but no protection has been applied.

In other cases, ongoing human activity in these parks has limited the effectiveness of conservation mandates. As the world discusses new goals, there is clearly a need to better understand how well parks work as a conservation strategy.

Our team set out to fill this knowledge gap for terrestrial mammal species, which provide essential ecological services to ecosystems and people. To do this, we have capitalized on a powerful tool that is becoming widespread in wildlife conservation: the camera trap.

Advances in image capture technologies mean that researchers can set up remote cameras (called camera traps) in protected areas and leave them running for long periods of time. Camera traps are automatically triggered by a change in motion and heat in their immediate vicinity. For researchers, they are like eyes in the woods, observing animals as they pass.

We analyzed data from over 8,600 camera traps deployed around the world. We found that the degree of formal protection of an area is an important determinant of mammalian diversity.

As the use of camera traps has increased, the number of ecosystems studied has increased, allowing researchers to gain knowledge about wildlife. For example, we now know more than ever about the abundance and activities of animals living in Canada’s boreal forests and China’s tropical rainforests.

Conservationists have called for a collaborative effort to collate camera trap data to get the big picture. Some current collaborations include the Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) network, eMammal, and an assessment of global patterns of carnivorous mammalian diversity. Our research brought together 91 studies from camera trap surveys in more than 20 countries on four continents.

Human impacts

While environmental factors such as temperature and vegetation productivity are known to affect species distribution and diversity, the impact of human activities is not as well understood.

We analyzed camera trap data to determine the relative importance of protected area coverage, human footprint (the cumulative human effect on the environment), and the ease with which people could access a given natural area. .

Our analysis illustrated the importance of protected areas in predicting mammalian diversity, even when other types of human disturbance were present to some extent (such as logging or hunting). Furthermore, over 60% of the protected areas in our study were classified as areas where commercial and traditional forms of human activity are permitted, suggesting that biodiversity protection may indeed be compatible with certain types and human use intensities.

Biodiversity monitoring

The second half of this year’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in April, with one of the main objectives being to discuss the post-2020 biodiversity framework. This framework will set new targets for global and national biodiversity conservation efforts.

To inform these goals and assess their success, there is an urgent need for reliable indicators of biodiversity change and rigorous assessments of conservation effectiveness. Our study highlights how camera trap surveys can generate standardized data on many species within mammal communities in diverse ecosystems. This monitoring tool has great potential to become an integral part of global biodiversity monitoring systems designed to more closely monitor and ultimately better protect Earth’s wild creatures.

Cheng Chen, PhD Candidate, Forestry, University of British Columbia and Cole Burton, Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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