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The capacity of Australia’s protected-area system to represent threatened species

Watson, J.E.M., Evans, M.C., Carwardine, J., Fuller, R.A., Joseph, L.N., Segan, D.B., Taylor, M.F.J., Fensham, R.J. & Possingham, H.P. 2011. The capacity of Australia’s protected-area system to represent threatened species. Conservation Biology, 25, 324-332.

The acquisition or designation of new protected areas is usually based on criteria for representation of different ecosystems or land-cover classes, and it is unclear how well-threatened species are conserved within protected-area networks. Here, we assessed how Australia’s terrestrial protected-area system (89million ha, 11.6% of the continent) overlaps with the geographic distributions of threatened species and compared this overlap against a model that randomly placed protected areas across the continent and a spatially efficient model that placed protected areas across the continent to maximize threatened species’ representation within the protected-area estate. We defined the minimum area needed to conserve each species on the basis of the species’ range size. We found that although the current configuration of protected areas met targets for representation of a given percentage of species’ ranges better than a random selection of areas, 166 (12.6%) threatened species occurred entirely outside protected areas and target levels of protection were met for only 259 (19.6%) species. Critically endangered species were among those with the least protection; 12 (21.1%) species occurred entirely outside protected areas. Reptiles and plants were the most poorly represented taxonomic groups, and amphibians the best represented. Spatial prioritization analyses revealed that an efficient protected-area system of the same size as the current protected-area system (11.6% of the area of Australia) could meet representation targets for 1272 (93.3%) threatened species. Moreover, the results of these prioritization analyses showed that by protecting 17.8% of Australia, all threatened species could reach target levels of representation, assuming all current protected areas are retained. Although this amount of area theoretically could be protected, existing land uses and the finite resources available for conservation mean land acquisition may not be possible or even effective for the recovery of threatened species. The optimal use of resources must balance acquisition of new protected areas, where processes that threaten native species are mitigated by the change in ownership or on-ground management jurisdiction, and management of threatened species inside and outside the existing protected-area system.

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