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June 2012


Director of Fundación Biodiversidad

Species conservation from the public sphere

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 The destruction and fragmentation of habitats is one of the main threats to the survival of many species on our planet. Like the introduction of exotic invasive species, the trade in endangered species and climate change, or the slaughter of animals, they are the direct result of human action.

Although new species are being discovered every year, this is outpaced by the rate of biodiversity loss and destruction, which has accelerated considerably over the last few decades, sounding alarms at numerous points around the planet. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which draws up an inventory of the state of species conservation around the globe –its famous Red List– estimates that around 10 to 50 thousand of the world’s species become extinct each year.

On account of its geographic position and climatic characteristics, Spain is home to almost 85 thousand species of flora and fauna– more than half Europe’s total– and 30% of the continent’s endemic species. This biological wealth makes the country vulnerable; hence it is one of the planet’s hotspots in terms of biodiversity loss.

This calls for responsibility regarding conservation, a responsibility which mainly falls to the public authorities, on whom the onus of avoiding endangered species becoming extinct and deciding which to conserve falls. Avoiding the disappearance of species is a priority goal at regional, national and European level. It is also one of the objectives of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, approved twenty years ago at the Río Summit (1992).

In Spain, the Natural Heritage and Bio­diversity Act establishes guarantees of conservation of native wild species and sets out the measure the Autonomous Communities are to take, with the priority on preserving habitats and putting in place specific protection systems for those species requiring them, through action plans across their range.

The Act also establishes that for endangered species to be the object of active conservation measures they need to be included on the List of Wild Species under Special Protection and the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species, which defines two categories of taxa or populations whose biodiversity is threatened: “endangered” and “vulnerable.”
According to the report “Biodiversity in Spain. Basis of sustainability in the face of global change” (2011) by the Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad en España (OSE), on which Fundación Biodiversidad collaborated, half of the plans approved and half the species for which they have been adopted are birds; almost a quarter are animals; and just six species of invertebrate, six species of fish, four amphibians and three reptiles have action plans.

The guidance framework of the Recovery and Conservation Plans that the Autonomous Communities are to approve for species catalogued in these two categor­ies are the Conservation Strategies for endangered species, giving priority to taxa facing the highest level of threat. The Natural Heritage and Biodiversity Act also establishes that these strategies are to be approved by the Conferencia Sectorial de Medio Ambiente (Environmental Sector Conference), a body for collabor­ation between national government and the Autonomous Communities.

At present strategies are in place for the Spanish imperial eagle, the freshwater clam, the crested coot, the ribbed Mediterranean limpet (Patella ferruginea), the Iberian lynx, the white-headed duck, the Cantabrian brown bear, the Pyrenean brown bear, the Balearic shearwater, the bearded vulture, the Cantabrian capercaillie, the Pyrenean capercaillie, and the European mink. Fundación Biodivesidad supports numerous endangered-species conservation projects, many of which have strategies, such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian lynx, the Cantabrian capercaillie or the bearded vulture. These initiatives are funded through calls for aid or the LIFE+ Program, a European Union financial instrument cofinancing projects of this kind.

Additionally, captive breeding programs are run as a last resort to ensure the survival of a species. Fundación Biodiversidad supports captive breeding of emblematic species such as the Iberian lynx and the Cantabrian capercaillie in order to achieve good population status for these species.

The scientific paper “La conservación de biodiversidad en España: atención científica, construcción social e interés político” (Martín-López, B., Martín-Forés, I., González, J A , Montes, C. (2011). Ecosistemas 20(1):103-113.), highlights that the factors underlying the prioritisation of species in conservation policies are research, public opinion, the red lists, and binding legislation on threatened species.

The paper also highlights that there is a strong correlation in this decision-making process between priority conservation species, those that are the object of scientific interest and those preferred socially, such that when a species becomes a priority conservation target it automatically becomes a priority object of research, thus generating more information and forming a virtuous circle that becomes a “trap” in species prioritisation and the dedicating of resources to their conservation.

There is no doubt that we need to deepen our scientific understanding of species in order to make the right decisions. We need to make progress on taxonomy, knowledge of the abundance and distribution of populations, correctly assess the threats, and work actively to reduce negative impacts on them.

It is therefore essential to establish an ecosystem-wide approach when running projects, promoting conservation and sustainable use of living resources in an equitable way, because not only is there a need to conserve the target species itself, but also to conserve its habitat, in order to maintain interactions between species and the environment, ensuring the functionality of the ecosystem.

Also, territorial stewardship is also a power­ful tool, with a long track record, contributing to the conservation of threatened species. Supporting stewardship bodies and networks operating throughout the country is another of Fundación Biodiversidad’s commitments. Over the next three years it plans to apply this approach to conservation of the Cantabrian capercaillie in the Biosphere Reserves of the Cantabrian Mountains.

Finally, the big challenge we face in all sectors, both government and civil society, is to halt global change and mitigate its effects. Climate change is today the biggest threat to many endangered species. The data speak for themselves. It is estimated that 13% of the area occupied by 96 threatened species of land vertebrates will lose their favourable climate conditions, which will probably lead to local extinctions. Establishing climate-change adaptation measures and programmes is an essential part of species conservation policies, as for many of them climate change would otherwise mean their extinction.

Published in No. 09

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  • Lychnos. ISSN: 2171-6463 (Spanish print edition),
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