Last week, on World Environment Day, the Brazilian authorities added more land to an existing nature reserve to create a protected area four times the size of the original reserve. It’s a huge victory for conservation and particularly for the science of conservation. Explaining why this great news so excites me — and why I am so passionate about the strategy of CPR for Earth — “Connect, Protect, and Restore” — needs some background.
A decade ago, my colleague Clinton Jenkins and I looked at a strip of poor cattle pasture running between two blocks of forest east of Rio de Janeiro. “It has to go!” we thought. To the east, was a reserve, REBIO União, protected by the Brazilian government. It’s home to one of the world’s most charismatic primates, the golden lion tamarin. To the west, lay a larger forest at higher elevations, protected by laws that discourage deforestation on private land.
To the tamarins, many birds, butterflies, and just about all other species, that forest might just as well have been on another world. Forest species cannot cross easily or safely a gap that large — they know it’s too alien a habitat, too dangerous for them. We vowed to make the gap go away — and we did. We helped our colleagues at the Associação Mico-Leão Dourado (Golden Lion Tamarin Association) buy that gap, allowing them to Connect the reserve to those western forests, Protect the land, and Restore the natural forest— CPR.
But why here? And why was this gap so important? And what are the larger consequences?
The frontlines of saving species from extinction are not everywhere. Some endangered species are large, fierce, and we perceive them as threats — lions and other big cats on land, are obvious examples. The conservation strategy must be to prevent conflict — which is exactly what National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative tries to do. But the much larger number of endangered species are at risk because they have small geographical ranges and we are destroying those areas rapidly. Importantly, these vulnerable species concentrate in a few special places — ‘biodiversity hotspots’ — mostly in the tropical moist forests of the world.
The coastal forests of Brazil are one such place. They contain the highest concentrations of threatened species in all the Americas. Mapping out where such concentrations are is part of the conservation science that Clinton and I do with our collaborators. You can find many more maps for both land and sea at www.biodiversitymapping.org.
From working in coastal Brazil, the northern Andes, Madagascar, and other ‘biodiversity hotspots’ around the world, we knew there is bad news and worse news. First, there isn’t much forest. Second, what forest there is remains in tatters — only small patches of forest still exist.
Species die out in small patches, often for the obvious reason that animals cannot find mates to whom they are not related. Dispersal is everything. It’s impossible when animals are imprisoned in forest islands from which they cannot escape.
So how small is too small? The answer comes from the most remarkable ecological experiment ever conducted. Nearly 40 years ago, National Geographic fellow Tom Lovejoy persuaded ranchers who were clearing land in the central Amazon to leave forest patches behind of different sizes. Working with Tom, my colleagues and I have estimated how quickly different patches lose species. To simplify a complex story, unless a patch is many thousands of hectares (— a thousand hectares is 10 square kilometers or 4 square miles) it will lose species too quickly.
That’s why Clinton and I knew the CPR strategy was essential: REBIO União was only 2714 hectares and was too small. The connection to the other forest was critical — we needed a corridor of forest between the forests.
The story over the last decade is that through the non-profit organisation we direct, SavingSpecies, we raised the money to buy the land and transferred that money to the Associação Mico-Leão Dourado.
They then bought the land and immediately transferred it to what is essentially the Brazilian park service — Instituto Chico Mendes para a Conservação da Biodiversidade. (At SavingSpecies, we believe it is essential to empower local conservation groups and do not own land in countries not our own.) Over the last several years, the Association has planted trees, the forest has regrown, and most excitingly, we know that the tamarins are moving between the once isolated forests. So, too are important predators, such as puma, which help keep-in-check populations of non-threatened species that prey on the tamarins.
So, check off ecological success.
But what about the long-term goal of protecting the entire landscape? That’s a ‘political’ goal, and that’s what finally happened last week. The Brazilian government extended the original reserve from its initial size to include the corridor we helped purchase and the forest to which it connected. The total area has now increased to 7769 hectares, large enough that conservation science suggests it will prevent most extinctions.
So, check off political success, too! The expanded reserve is now one of the largest patches of lowland forest in the State of Rio de Janeiro.
And, of course, check off what this says about our ability to use the best science to effect smart conservation and, importantly, very cost-effective conservation actions too. It’s also a compelling model for action in biodiversity hotspots across the globe.
For the tamarins, for the people of Brazil, and for those of us around the world who cherish biodiversity, we have every reason to celebrate.