Connectivity Conservation: Connecting People and Nature to Heal Our Planet

14th October 2020

This piece has been written by Dr Marcelo Gonçalves de Lima and Dr Gary Tabor.

The Year 2019 witnessed unprecedented levels of deforestation and land clearing around the globe –  from Brazil to Madagascar to Australia.  The Earth is experiencing a global fragmentation crisis. The scale of habitat change is so immense that the biosphere’s biodiversity and its ecological integrity are at risk, thus compromising the resilience of nature.  Adding insult to injury, the spectre of climate change only amplifies the deleterious consequences of this insidious fragmentation process.  More than 50% of the World’s landmass is under some form of anthropogenic use or in a semi-natural state while only 15.07% is under some category of protected area or as an OECM (Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measure). While it’s difficult to be precise about how much the seascape has been modified, the 7.56% that has been gazetted as a protected area is certainly not enough to maintain marine ecological function.

Ecological connectivity is an essential countermeasure that combats the impacts of fragmentation.   Since the turn of the century, ecological connectivity conservation has emerged and steadily grown as a mainstream conservation practice to prevent, protect and restore critical linkages within and across land, freshwater and marine realms .  If given the chance, nature has the ability to heal. In 2019, the UN General Assembly declared that 2021 to 2030 will be the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. It is a recognition of the problem and it is a great opportunity to restore connectivity while advancing job creation, food security and addressing climate change. Restoration and the rise of more large scale rewilding approaches give hope that fragmentation and its impacts can be reversed. The challenge for connectivity conservation is that it values conservation on all lands and seas, not just protected areas. Working outside of protected areas requires innovation and incentives to engage people of all cultures to achieve conservation goals.

Mato Grosso, remnant riparian forest in the Cerrado @Rui Rezende TNC/Brazil

While connectivity is critical outside of protected areas, protected areas form the core of any connectivity success. Connected protected areas are the ideal ecological architecture for large scale conservation in human dominated landscapes and seascapes. Most of the world looks to Target 11 of CBD’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets for prescriptive conservation guidance which stipulates that “By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.” Although we are close to the target in terms of the percentage of area protected, we are still far from any well-connected standard that indicates effectiveness. According to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5progress has been more modest in ensuring that protected areas safeguard the most important areas for biodiversity, are ecologically representative, connected to one another as well as to the wider landscape and seascape and are equitably and effectively managed.” A recent paper on Nature Communications showed that less than 10% of the terrestrial protected areas estate is structurally connected. Structural allied with functional connectivity allows gene flow between natural habitats, allowing metapopulations to function and the avoidance of deleterious effects such as inbreeding, local extinctions and also provide more habitat for feeding, reproduction etc. Maintaining linkages also sustain natural ecological processes and functions and preserve essential ecosystem services.

The importance of maintaining ecological connectivity was also recognized in the recent “Leaders Pledge for Nature” which commits to develop and fully implement the Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to be approved in next years COP 15, in particular, to significantly increase the protection of biodiversity through representative, well connected and effectively managed systems of Protected Areas and Other Effective Area Based Conservation Measures, and to restore a significant share of degraded ecosystems”. According to a recent global modelling exercise entitled A “Global Safety Net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate, there is an immense opportunity for the restoration of degraded areas that could significantly increase biodiversity protection and help mitigate climate change, serving as wildlife corridors and for example, for carbon emission offsetting. It also states that a relatively small percentage of area is needed to connect all intact terrestrial land via wildlife and climate corridors. There is a need more than ever for a pragmatic, cost-effective and science-based approach to implement and maintain these linkages and ecosystem services.  There are solutions within our reach.

Morro do Diabo State Park and linear remnants of Atlantic Forest in the surrounding landscape @Laury Cullen

For decades now, connectivity conservation science has been addressing these crucial questions of where and how to maintain and restore landscape linkages (and more recently, seascapes issues as well). The “where” is related to the best place you can implement a linkage while at the same time aiming for the right species as well as gaining on the maintenance of ecosystem services. The “how” is about what type of intervention you will use, e.g. a linear corridor, stepping stones, restoration, maintenance of exiting elements. There are of course other relevant questions to be addressed, and many are covered in the recently released of Guidelines for conserving connectivity through ecological networks and corridors developed by the Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. The Guidelines are based upon the definition that ecological connectivity is the unimpeded movement of species and the flow of natural processes that sustain life on Earth. The Convention on Migratory Species has endorsed this definition in 2020, at its Conference of Parts 13th meeting. The Guidelines provide a framework for establishing ecological corridors and connectivity areas between protected areas and OECMs while creating ecological networks supported by the appropriate policies and legislation to guarantee long term existence of the different linkage elements proposed. The Guidelines offer a set of policy definitions needed for the efficient planning and implementing of ecological corridors in different geopolitical conditions. The volume also includes 25 case studies from around the globe advancing connectivity conservation in land, freshwater and marine contexts. By design and its practice, connectivity conservation connects people to connect nature. We invite the wider conservation community as well as governments at all levels, responsible businesses and people across all cultures to use and promote these best practices which are based on authoritative science-based evidence. People can mend nature.  A window of opportunity is now open with all the pledges to conserve and restore natural habitat around the World.

Conserving habitat maintains ecosystem services – Wicken Fen. Photo credit: Marcelo Lima

About the authors: 

Dr Marcelo Gonçalves de Lima is a research fellow at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and UK and Brazil lead for IUCN WCPA’s Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group. He is also chair of the Cambridge Conservation Forum’s Connectivity Conservation Special Interest group.

Dr Gary Tabor is founder and president of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and Chair of IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas’ Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group.