Emmanuel Rondeau, WWF
We are currently facing a global environmental crisis. Human activities are destroying and degrading ecosystems around the world, while around 1 million species are estimated to be threatened with extinction. By destroying nature, we are undermining our own life support systems since the remarkable diversity of life on Earth underpins all our societies and economies.
KBAs are home to critical populations of the world’s threatened species. By mapping and protecting KBAs, we can ensure the conservation of the largest and most important populations of these species – and give them a real chance of survival.
Identifying KBAs involves taking a global view of species conservation. Many countries identify sites for conservation based on the rarity of species in their own country, even if the species is widespread in other countries. Applying the KBA criteria ensures that the global population of a species is assessed and the most important populations for that species as a whole are identified, including maintaining the genetic variation needed to adapt to a changing planet.
Species at risk include those that are identified as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These are species with very small, geographically restricted or rapidly declining populations. But the KBA criteria also identify vital sites for species with populations that are confined to small areas or form large aggregations at certain times of the year for breeding, feeding or migrating – since these species are all dependent on the health of a limited number of key habitats.
There are also areas that are hotspots of life, where gatherings of different species exist, particularly those with small ranges, and the loss of these sites would have a disproportionate impact on multiple species. These special sites have their own KBA criteria so that they can be identified.
The KBA criteria also allow proposers to assess the genetic variation within a species, where this is known, to identify sites of critical importance for genetic diversity.
The KBA criteria do not just consider populations of species but also their habitats or ecosystems. Ecosystems are identified by the unique collections of species they sustain, so their conservation helps to ensure the simultaneous survival of many species.
However, ecosystems are being rapidly lost and degraded around the world due to human impacts. KBAs can be identified for ecosystems that are globally threatened as defined by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Ecosystems or for ecosystems that are geographically restricted and therefore at risk of being lost due to unsustainable human activity.
There is also a KBA criterion for sites that are fully intact in terms of their fauna and flora, where there is globally outstanding ecological integrity. These sites are becoming increasingly rare around the world as human impacts spread, with only about 26% of the world showing low human impact. Intact sites boast largely unmodified collections of plants as well as retaining their characteristic animal species – unlike many areas of formerly intact forest that appear healthy but their animal population have been depleted by excessive hunting pressures. These intact sites provide disproportionally large climate benefits to people and are the last few areas of true wilderness left on earth.