A continent-wide blueprint for conservation action in Africa:

Conservation priorities integrating multiple animal groups,
human development and resource limitation

Principal Investigators: Carsten Rahbek (Zoological Museum) & Andrew Balmford (Cambridge University)


Patterns in the distribution of species in Africa hold a deep fascination for biologists (Kingdon 1989). Understanding these patterns holds great potential for revealing insights into speciation (e.g. Hall & Moreau 1970, Snow 1978), systematics (e.g. Roy et al. 1997), endemism (e.g. Fjeldså & Lovett 1997), migration (e.g. Moreau 1966) and many other fields. Patterns of species distribution also have urgent applied implications, because humanity's impact is causing an extinction crisis in which species are being lost at a rate 1,000-10,000 times faster than that usual in the geological past (Pimm et al. 1995). High rates of habitat destruction worldwide suggest this (Whitmore 1997), and empirical assessment of the status of individual species confirms it (Brooks & Balmford 1996, Brooks et al. 1997).

It is increasingly clear that this crisis is not uniform: both biological diversity and humanity's impacts upon it are geographically clustered into 'hotspots', especially in the tropics (Myers 1988). Thus, the conservation of species one-by-one is inefficient (Pitelka 1981). In response, conservation biologists are beginning to address ways in which multitudes of species can be conserved together, rather than individually (Ehrlich 1992). One of the greatest challenges facing biologists is therefore to design analytical tools and conservation plans capable of representing as much remaining biodiversity as possible in the 5-10% of the earth's surface likely assigned for preservation of biodiversity (Wilson 1988, ICBP 1992). There has been much progress over the past decade in developing powerful algorithms that allow the identification of highly efficient sets of priority areas (Pressey et al. 1993, Williams 1996). These techniques rely on high quality distributional datasets, which are very scarce, especially in the tropics where most biodiversity occurs. Conservation plans also need to be advocated simultaneously by governments, NGOs, and intergovernmental organisations if they are to implemented on the ground.

We have a unique dataset (developed at the Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen), which offers an extremely exciting opportunity to pioneer a continent wide blueprint for conservation action. Our dataset summarises available published and unpublished data, and expert opinion on the distribution of birds, mammals, snakes, and amphibians for all of sub-Saharan Africa, at a much finer resolution than anything previously available (a continental resolution of one-degree grid squares). These data have been accumulated at ZMUC over the last four years (Burgess et al. 1997), drawing on a vast international network of collaborators within academia, governmental institutions and NGOs.

Research aims and objectives

This current proposal aims to tackle the following questions:

Several analyses will be performed to answer these questions: Data and methods

The databases contain the distributions of all 1911 species (604,318 records) of birds, 960 species (169,597 records) of mammals, 430 species (34,889 records) of snakes and 620 species (29,750 records) of amphibians found in the Afrotropical Region. For all groups, the maps at ZMUC represent the best available anywhere in the world. Over 50% of the maps have been developed at ZMUC, and are thus primary sources which have never been previously published or analysed. For all four taxonomic groups, distributional data have been digitised and are accessible to the powerful program WORLDMAP, specifically designed for cost-efficient conservation priority analyses (Williams 1996).

More information on the databases

More information on WORLDMAP

In addition to biological data, ZMUC holds large-scale African data sets of environmental variables including vegetation type, climate, geology, soils and topography. The threat status of all species is known from its listing in the Red Data Book (Collar & Stuart 1985, Collar et al. 1994, Groombridge & Baillie 1996), and we have relative abundance data for many of the species. Protected area data are available for Africa in a variety of formats, most important of which are the digital maps produced by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (Iremonger et al. 1997).

Furthermore, we have data on the distribution of human population densities (available on the World Wide Web from a number of organisations).

Direct output from project

One main output is papers aimed at high-impact journals. Given the continental scale of our dataset, novelty of our approaches and broad implications of our results, we aim to publish our key research results at the highest possible level, in journals such as Nature and Science. We believe this is feasible given the background of the scientists involved, their proven records at publishing in these journals, and the nature of the databases and analytical programs available to us.

We also aim to feed the results to our extensive network of contacts with conservation agencies across Africa and in Copenhagen, Cambridge, and Washington, D.C./New York (most of the major international NGO's are placed in the latter three cities). The researchers of this application have extended personal contacts (through previous collaborative work and/or employment) with Conservation International WWF-US, BirdLife International, The Nature Conservancy, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Conservation International. The results will also be fed directly to the GEF Secretariat (GEFSEC) in Washington D.C., the GEF Units in WorldBank, and the GEF-Units in UNDP, New York, through both existing and developing relationships with GEF staff in both Africa and the USA.

Outline of follow-up activities

We anticipate that one very important follow-up activity of the research program will be a series of workshops in African countries, aimed at integrating the results of our study into national procedures for conservation priority-setting. Most African countries are in the process of establishing national biodiversity plans, as part of their commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity. These include the identification of key areas for conservation - largely determined by within-country analyses. The research program has established links of collaboration with Conservation International, and with various other organisations responsible for co-ordinating such regional and national plans (e.g., WWF-US, BirdLife International and IUCN, as well as less formal contacts). We plan to use these links to participate in workshops where national priorities can be compared and integrated with continent-wide priorities. Getting continental priorities onto national agendas will be a crucial part of turning our recommendations into conservation action; on the other hand, establishing the international significance of key national areas should also help catalyse efforts for their conservation within the countries concerned.


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Brooks, T.M., Pimm, S.L. & Collar, N.J. (1997) The extent of deforestation predicts the number of birds threatened with extinction in insular South-east Asia. Conservation Biology 11: 382–394.

Burgess, N., de Klerk, H., Fjeldså, J., Crowe, T. & Rahbek, C. (1997) Mapping Afrotropical birds: links between atlas studies and conservation priority analyses. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 4: 93–98.

Collar, N.J. & Stuart, S.N. (1985) Threatened Birds of Africa and Related Islands. International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, UK.

Collar, N.J. & Stuart, S.N. (1988) Key Forests for Threatened Birds in the Afrotropical and Malagasy Realm. ICBP Monograph No. 3. International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, UK.

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Fjeldså, J. & Lovett, J.C. (1997) Geographical patterns of young and old species in African forest biota: the significance of specific montane areas as evolutionary centres. Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 325–346.

Hall, B.P. & Moreau, R.E. (1970) An Atlas of Speciation in African Passerine Birds. British Museum (Natural History), London, UK.

ICBP (1992) Putting Biodiversity on the Map. Priority Areas for Global Conservation. International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, UK.

Iremonger, S., Ravilious, C. & Quinton, T. (1997) A Global Overview of Forest Conservation. CD-ROM. WCMC and CIFOR, Cambridge, UK.

Kingdon, J. (1989) Island Africa. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA.

Moreau, R.E. (1966) The Bird Faunas of Africa and its Islands. Academic Press, London, UK.

Myers, N. (1988) Threatened biotas: "hotspots" in tropical forests. The Environmentalist 8: 1–20.

Pimm, S.L., Russell, G.J., Gittleman, J.L. & Brooks, T.M. (1995) The future of biodiversity. Science 269: 347–350.

Pitelka, F.A. (1981) The condor case: an uphill struggle in a downhill crush. Auk 98: 634–635.

Pressey, R.L., Humphries, C.J., Margules, C.R., Vane-Wright, R.I. & Williams, P.H. (1993) Beyond opportunism: key principles for systematic reserve selection. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8: 124–128.

Roy, M.S., Cardoso da Silva, J.M., Arctander. P., García-Moreno, J. & Fjeldså, J. (1997) The speciation of South American and African birds in montane regions. Pp. 325–343 in Mindell, D.P. (ed.) Avian Molecular Evolution and Systematics. Academic Press, New York, USA.

Snow, D.W. (1978) An Atlas of Speciation in African Non-Passerine Birds. British Museum (Natural History), London, UK.

Whitmore, T.C. (1997) Tropical forest disturbance, disappearance, and species loss. Pp. 3–13 in Laurance, W.L. & Bierregaard, R.O., Jr. (eds.) Tropical Forest Remnants. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.

Williams, P.H. (1996) WORLDMAP 4.1. Priority Areas for Biodiversity. Privately distributed software, London, UK.

Wilson, E.O. (1988) The current state of biological diversity. Pp. 3–18 in Wilson, E.O. (ed.) BioDiversity. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

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Last updated:24 maj 2007