Wildlife conservation needs effective governance more than GDP or space

The Lesser Flamingo, (Phoeniconaias minor) is one of the species in decline in A
The Lesser Flamingo, (Phoeniconaias minor) is one of the species in decline in Africa. Image taken in Kuifkopvisanger, Western Cape, South Africa (Credit: Daniel J Field, Milner Centre for Evolution)

Protecting an area for wildlife can work--but only if there is robust political governance. That’s the research conclusion of twenty-three years of bird counting by an international team of researchers, including a scientist from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath and published in the journal Nature .

The researchers have combined long-term global bird surveys with diverse factors which may impact on the richness of nature. The analysis shows that governance predicts population abundance better than does GDP, agricultural expansion, climate change, or human population growth.

23 years of bird-watching data

The finding is one outcome from thousands of hours of work, not just data-processing but also in the field. It combines visits to 25,769 sites across the globe, from the International Waterbird Census coordinated by Wetlands International, and the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. This big-data analysis was carried out by Wetlands International staff and counterparts at Bath, Cambridge, Debrecen and Aarhus universities.

The huge dataset of 2.4 million records can point to more than just the bird species surveyed. Waterbirds can indicate a lot about the condition of wetland, and wetlands themselves are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth.

"Our study shows that waterbird monitoring allows us not only to learn about the status of waterbirds or wetland ecosystems, but also provide useful lessons about what we need to do to halt the loss of biodiversity," says Szabolcs Nagy, Coordinator of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Census at Wetlands International.

Huge decline in waterbirds

Professor Tamás Székely, Professor of Biodiversity at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, initiated the project, and helped to analyse the data and write-up the study.

He commented: "Our data show that socio-political instability can lead to biodiversity loss and undermine conservation efforts.

"For example, flamingos and pelicans are among the species that showed the worst decline in Sub-Saharan Africa. However declines were the most severe in South America, which suffered a 21 per cent total decline over 25 years, particularly affecting species including storks, herons and ibises.

"In contrast, Europe has seen increases in overall waterbird abundance, although some species in the same areas have still declined in numbers."

Poor governance undermines conservation efforts

Even formally protected areas suffered declines in countries with poorer governance. The analysis shows that if wildlife is to benefit from more land being protected in its name there needs to be good governance. The measure of governance in this study World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, a mean of voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption.

The study confirms concerns about the effectiveness - and value - of funding protected areas without also developing local governance, in some areas of rich and high-profile wildlife. Governance is recognised as necessary for human development, and this finding reiterates the interconnectedness of humans and ecosystems. The scope of this research and focus on waterbirds - some of which are migratory and need space in different countries - highlight the global relevance of local enforcement.

The lack of environmental legislation or its enforcement can lead to habitat loss, such as the drastic losses in permanent water caused by unsustainable water management and dam building in western and central Asia in the past 30 years.

"This long-term study encapsulates our ethos of linking the local to the global," says Dr Taej Mundkur, Coordinator of the International Waterbird Census at Wetlands International. "The findings suggest that national and international agencies can increase their impact by looking at political and ecological issues in tandem, and investing in good governance for protected areas."

This study also provides useful pointers on out how governments can better meet agreed global targets linked to the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 Aichi Targets, 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as effectively implementing regional flyway agreements.