For this #MapMonday we return to Yale’s Environmental Performance group, featured previously here on #MapMonday. The newly released biodiversity map brings together a whopping amount of data to detail the state (quality not just quantity) of species around the world, and while the staggering diversity of life on our planet is breathtaking (and sometimes pretty weird), the overall picture is grim.

I spoke with the Program Manager and Research Director of the Environmental Performance Group, Jason Schwartz and Angel Hsu, about the map and what it tells us.


What are protected areas protecting?

The global human community has made a big show of responding to widespread planetary extinction, which is, in all fairness to nonhumans, the global human community’s fault in the first place. We have designated more and more land and water as protected area every year. We are up to 15% of land and 3% of oceans that are now off limits to exploitation. Just this year, President Obama set aside the largest marine protected area on earth. And the 2014 Protected Planet Report (pdf) by the United Nations Environment Program proudly proclaimed that 2020 targets for protected area expansion are well on their way to being met.

We’re only addressing part of the problem, that’s why. Metrics that international treaties set for the protection of biodiversity are solely focused on the quantity – and not the quality – of efforts to conserve habitats. Unfortunately, we are not doing a very good job in setting aside the critical areas many vulnerable species depend upon for their survival. Many protected areas are the leftovers, where extractive industries would have too much trouble casting their nets. It shouldn’t be surprising that species have not responded by migrating en masse, choosing instead to carry on in the places they like, even as those places disappear or become increasingly hostile.

That isn’t to say that there are not functional and successful protected areas. There are quite a few on land and on water. But although we may know why successful ones thrive, there is a glaring shortage of information tracking why the laggards lag, and, in many cases, who the laggards even are. And that doesn’t even get at understanding species protection at the national level.

Two big data projects at Yale University—The Map of Life and the Environmental Performance Index— have joined forces to address the glaring gap in indicators assessing how countries are responding to global trends of species and habitat loss. The tool they have produced, a map showing the overlapping of protected areas and the real habitats of vulnerable species, predicts what those indicators may look like.

The Map of Life, a research project out of Yale University, collects massive amounts of data about where the actual (not assumed) habitats of species coincide with protected areas. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a global composite index of national environmental policy performance. The EPI has historically tracked the land area of protected areas to judge national performance on habitat conservation. It has teamed up with the Map of Life to begin producing new indicators that are responsive to the quality of protected areas, not just the quantity of it. The map is still in the very early stages, but the two groups plan to create a first-ever indicator of species protection for every country globally.

Certainly, nobody is patting themselves on the back for how the human species is protecting the nonhuman. We are doing a dismal job. But we won’t improve until we are assessing our efforts along the right criteria. Tools like this map are going to point the way.

What metrics are used traditionally, and in this map, to help assess our progress (or lack thereof) in maintaining biodiversity?

There currently are no metrics that communicate how governments are performing in terms of protecting species. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global treaty governing all aspects of the world's biodiversity, sets targets for countries to protect 17% of terrestrial habitats and 10% of marine. Data show that the world is largely on track to meet these targets, but much of the conversation at the latest World Parks Congress discussed the fact that these metrics focus only the quantity and not the quality of protection. The phenomenon of "paper parks" — parks that exist on maps but in reality are not protecting or conserving species — is a very real problem.

The EPI is trying to address this gap by introducing new metrics that demonstrate how countries are doing in protecting both habitats and species, in other words, what countries’ protected areas are protecting. Nobody disagrees that protected areas are a vital part of the solution. We just need to make sure they are meeting the conditions necessary to do their job.

What are "biodiversity hotspots" and how does this map help identify them?

That’s a good question. Biodiversity hotspots are pretty specific. They must have a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on the planet and they must be threatened. Around the world, only 35 areas quality as hotspots, representing just 2.3% of Earth’s land surface. All that is to say that biodiversity hotspots are each irreplaceable and unique.

Currently, this map isn’t capable of identifying them. And while we don't have an indicator in the EPI that directly measures hotspot protection, we use a dataset from the Alliance for Zero Extinction that demonstrates endangered or threatened species sites or hotspots. The EPI indicator that assesses how well countries are protecting or critical habitat areas with parks is here: By the time we launch the 2016 EPI, we will have developed a map to better understand hotspot protection.

Can you mention an example of a species of flora or fauna and what the map tells us about its state of being?

Right now we only have five species from the Map of Life exhibited on our map. But we will start adding new ones soon. All of the species we have on the map are in trouble, largely because of habitat loss. Take the white-winged cuckoo shrike, a vulnerable species that has historically lived on three islands in the Philippines, all of which are experiencing heavy deforestation. The species lives in forest canopy and prefers the old, big trees of primary, lowland forest—the same kind of trees timber companies prefer— to newer growth or mountainous forest. Already, it has been wiped out from one of the islands.

Although it might seem common locally to some people on the two islands it still inhabits, the total population of the bird is believed to be less than 20,000 individuals. In a rapidly diminishing landscape, that does not bode well. Some of its habitat exists within two national parks, but these parks are only nominally protected. A proposed park on the island of Panay will put a lot more of its habitat under protection. The point is, most of this species habitat falls outside of good protection, even though there are national parks in the areas near where it lives.


So what’s the connection between a biodiversity map and energy here at Plugged In? Well, for one, our search for fossil fuel resources often pushes into so-called “hot spots” and disrupts ecosystems and vulnerable species. Be it polar bears finding their habitat increasingly frail due to thinning ice, or a range of species under pressure from deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil, the consequences to biodiversity can at least now be better mapped if not ameliorated.

More resources:

  • The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species