IMAGE: GIANT GECKO
Piotr Naskrecki
The giant leaf-tailed gecko of Madagascar was among the 2,315 species whose habitat was mapped as part of a new approach to protecting wildlife.
msnbc.com
updated 4/10/2008 5:04:46 PM ET 2008-04-10T21:04:46

While some of the beneficiaries are best described as freaks of nature, a new approach to protecting wildlife was announced Thursday on the cover of the journal Science — one that maps which habitat is most worth protecting.

The study focused on a single island — Africa's Madagascar — and 2,315 species that call it home, among them strange looking geckos and lemurs.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the study partners, called the project "unprecedented in terms of not only the number of species examined, but also because of the project’s scale and resolution.

"The biodiversity, climate and habitat of the entire 226,657 square-mile island, which is nearly a third larger than the state of California, were examined," the New York-based group stated. "The maps generated from the data analyses have a resolution of less than a square kilometer."

"This study will help direct conservation plans to help protect the most species possible, with special consideration given to those animals and plants that are most endangered,” study co-author Claire Kremen, a UC Berkeley assistant professor, said in a statement announcing the study.

Old ways not 'quick enough'
"Conservation planning has historically focused on protecting one species or one group of species at a time, but in our race to beat species extinction, that one-taxon approach is not going to be quick enough," she added.

Using special software and data collected over decades, the researchers created a high-resolution map of the island and the habitat of those 2,315 animals and plants.

IMAGE: LEMUR
Jerome Delay  /  AP
A Madagascar lemur
"While the analysis emphasized the importance of protecting an enormous sweep of species of several groups, the model also was tailored to afford greater priority to species that have suffered significant range reductions between the years of 1950 to 2000," the Wildlife Conservation Society said.

As examples, the group cited two types of lemurs that were given higher ratings due to recent habitat reductions: the Coquerel’s sifaka (listed as critically endangered) and the Decken’s sifaka (listed as vulnerable).

Getting the species data was not easy. "The terrain is rough, there are few roads, and we often had to hike 18 miles to get to the field site," Kremen said of her own research. "Once there, we'd live for months in a tent under a tarp, enduring leeches and torrential rainfalls, eating rice and beans, to document the range of animal and plant species in a specific area. This is truly hard-won data."

Madagascar pledges protection
The mapping has been provided to the government of Madagascar, which in 2003 pledged to set aside 10 percent of its area as natural habitat. Some 6 percent is already set aside and protects 70 percent of the species studied, the Wildlife Conservation Society said, and the study recommends how and where to expand that protection.

"Further, the study identifies completely new areas for conservation, specifically central plateau massifs and coastal forests that lack large forest blocks, but contain high degrees of species richness and uniqueness," according to the group, which has helped establish several Madagascar reserves.

While the study's immediate focus was Madagascar, the authors said the approach could, and should, be exported.

"By combining huge data sets with the latest available software programs, we can identify conservation priorities with a high degree of precision on truly huge scales," said co-author Alison Cameron of UC Berkeley. "Most importantly, we can export this model to other areas of critical conservation importance."

"As natural habitats shrink in the face of increasing pressures from people, picking which areas to safeguard for the future is a huge challenge around the world," the Wildlife Conservation Society said.

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