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Creating Effective Conservation Plans: Preserving Entire Ecosystems

One approach that environmental scientists take to conservation — called ecosystem-based or habitat-centered conservation — looks beyond single species and seeks to protect entire ecosystems. Preserving a whole habitat from destruction protects all the species that live there and maintains ecosystems for species that are recovering from near extinction.

However, simply fencing off areas of high biodiversity isn’t enough. Conservation scientists have realized in the past few decades that each preserved space creates an island of protected habitat but leaves the edges and the spaces in between unprotected. To tackle this issue, environmental scientists have explored different designs for habitat conservation that help extend protected habitat and reduce the effects of human populations around the edges of conserved areas.

Scientists look at how best to protect biodiversity through habitat conservation in two different ways. One is based on island biogeography theory, and the other is through the creation of biosphere reserves.

The theory of island biogeography explains how the size of a habitat affects the biodiversity of an ecosystem. Originally used to study actual island ecosystems, such as the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii, scientists now apply island biogeography principles to “islands” of protected or undisturbed landscape.

Island biogeography studies have shown two key points that relate specifically to biodiversity conservation:

  • In general, larger habitats are home to a larger number of species and larger populations of each species.

  • In some cases, the overall size of a preserve isn’t as important as whether multiple protected areas are connected together. When multiple areas are connected, species have the opportunity to migrate over greater distances and interact with other populations, thus maintaining species richness across the ecosystem.

    In regions where multiple islands of preserved habitat already exist, conservation scientists propose connecting the islands together with protected corridors, or narrow regions of protected habitat linking one island to another.

    Connecting areas of landscape with protected corridors, such as the one illustrated in this figure, allows species to travel between the islands and greatly increases their habitat size. These corridors also allow humans and other species to inhabit a region together.

    [Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics]
    Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics

Another approach to conservation that tries to balance human resource use with healthy and protected ecosystems is the creation of biosphere reserves. Biosphere reserves are unique because they’re designed to reach beyond habitat preservation or resource conservation. The three main goals of a productive biosphere reserve are

  • Conservation of biodiversity

  • Research and monitoring of ecosystem health

  • Promotion of sustainable development

To achieve these goals, most biosphere reserves are divided into three separate zones, as illustrated in this figure.

[Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics]
Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics
  • Core area: Each biosphere reserve has at its center a core area that’s protected from resource harvesting or development. Research scientists may monitor the core area to measure the overall health and biodiversity of the ecosystem.

  • Buffer zone: Surrounding the core area is the buffer zone, a region where scientists and others practice research, education, and ecological tourism with the goal of encouraging people to value the habitat conservation at the core.

  • Transition zone: Beyond the buffer zone is the transition zone, where you find sustainable development and human settlements. In this zone, humans may harvest resources by using sustainable practices.

By establishing this sequence of zones, a biosphere reserve protects the core area, including its edges, from unsustainable resource harvesting and environmental damage. At the same time, humans can meet their resource needs, and local populations get educated in sustainable practices to extend habitat and resource conservation into the future.

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