By Emma Marris
Lions, elephants and other charismatic species are not by themselves good indicators of biodiversity hotspots. But a new analysis suggests that studies of tourist-pleasing big mammals can be part of a cocktail of indicators that produce useful maps for conservation planning.
Scientists at conservation organizations often focus their research on large, interesting animals that the public — and donors — love, such as pandas, tigers and gorillas. One rationale is that because many of these 'charismatic megafauna' thrive only in large, rich, biodiverse areas, their distribution can act as a proxy for the diversity of whole ecosystems, from microbes up, which is extremely difficult to measure. Conservationists have argued that actions intended to preserve one iconic animal can have an 'umbrella effect' and save less-glamorous species that thrive in its shadow.
However, some studies have cast serious doubt on the reality of the umbrella effect. A 1998 review1 by Daniel Simberloff, a biologist now at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, noted that “whether many other species will really fall under the umbrella is a matter of faith rather than research”. And a report2 in 2000 found that maps of the ranges of the 'Big Five' African mammals popular with tourists — lions (Panthera leo), leopards (Panthera pardus), elephants (Loxodonta africana), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and rhinos (Diceros bicornis and Ceratotherium simum) — were “not signiﬁcantly better for representing the diversity of mammals and birds than choosing areas at random”.
So Enrico Di Minin and Atte Moilanen, population biologists at the University of Helsinki, decided to construct a formula that would combine the ranges of the Big Five with other information to make truly useful maps. Their analysis appeared on 9 December in Journal of Applied Ecology3.
The duo focused on KwaZulu-Natal, a South African province long known to be a biodiversity hotspot, where the Big Five roam among forests, thickets, bushveld and grasslands. More....