For the last 50 years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kept the largest, most-relied-on database of all the threatened species in the world on its Red List. The organization was the first to use the term “sustainable development,” and has long lobbied industry and government to preserve the world’s “natural capital.”
But part of growing natural capital (and saving the animals) means keeping crucial places intact, too. In a paper published today in Science, the IUCN has outlined the top 78 most “irreplaceable” sites in the world that provide habitats to the majority of more than 600 bird, mammal, and amphibian species.
“People have focused a lot on expanding the protected area network. We focused a lot on expanding and filling the gaps,” Ana Rodrigues, a global researcher with the IUCN, said.
Part of the reason the IUCN decided to release the database was to highlight specific endangered species that are still at risk, even within “protected” areas. “There’s many protected areas that don’t have protected management,” Rodrigues said. “It’s much more urgent that they need to be adequately managed. Sometimes management is focused on big charismatic species, but they might overlook the small ones.”
Some of the 78 sites were the only known locations for certain species, though only half overall had World Heritage site status. We highlighted five from the list with some of the highest irreplaceability rankings.
The IUCN has ranked Canaima National Park and its surrounding area as the most irreplaceable in the world. Its breathtaking topography explains why: Canaima, like other parts of northeastern South America, features tepuyes, flat, tabletop mountains rising 1,000 to 3,000 meters high. Altitude isolates the tepuyes from their surrounding environment, and as a result, the mountains also host unique worlds of living things. Take the Roraima Black Frog, which only exists on two of these mountains. If tourists decided to pull a move similar to the recent Boy Scouts fiasco (but on a much larger scale), they could easily wipe out an entire species.
Much of Australia’s climate is arid, but the wetlands on its northeastern tip jutting out near Papua New Guinea contain pockets of diverse and extremely rare wildlife. The wetlands are one of the only homes to the tree-kangaroo, for example, a type of marsupial that lives among the rainforest branches. (Think of a kangaroo with monkey skills.) Many tree kangaroos are threatened, however, because of hunting and hungry dogs.
The Western Ghats, a mountain range in western India, is a biodiversity hotspot amid a heavily populated area of plantations and human development. The Nilgiri tahr, or ibex, is limited to 5% of the mountain range, but there are only 2,000 of them left. While the tahr subsist on the mountain grasses, they’ve faced competition from local livestock, and have fallen prey to human poachers.
Like many mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia stands out as an exceptional habitat because of its altitude and relative isolation. But at 5,700 meters, the Santa Marta contains the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The IUCN has also ranked the area as the most irreplaceable for the conservation of threatened species in particular. The range is home to 600 bird species, 20 of which only exist in that specific environment, as well as a variety of endangered frogs. The critically endangered harlequin frog was once common in the area, but is now expected to decline 80% over the next decade because of a fungal disease that invades the skin.
Just south of the state of California, the Baja peninsula contains species of mammals living nowhere else on the planet. The fish-eating bat is a vulnerable species that seeks out cave crevices in rocks after landslides, and exists only on small islands and along the Sonora and Baja coasts. Invasive species have challenged the bat, which subsists on crustaceans and fish it catches with its toes that skim along the water when flying. Fish-eating bat populations have decreased by as much as 30% over the last decade, and feral cats continue to decimate species of critically endangered rodents on the island.
To check out more irreplaceable spots, navigate the IUCN and United Nations Environment Programme’s joint protected area map here.