Biodiversity protection in the E.U.: expansive but inefficient

When it comes to biodiversity, Europe is a bit of a strange place. On one hand, combining its 28 member states, the EU covers some 4.5 million square kilometers and contains within it parts of several global biodiversity hotspots, several of our planet’s most valuable ecoregions, and many important centers of botanical diversity. On the other hand, more than 500 million humans live there, which leaves limited space for the rest of biodiversity. The US and Canada, by comparison, are home to some 350 million humans but encompass an area around 4.4 times as large. The environmental impact left by our species and our culture is simply larger in the EU than in other parts of the world, making the conservation of biodiversity in some ways harder to achieve.

The EU has been a pioneer in global conservation. In 1979, it adopted the Birds Directive, which aimed to consider 193 endangered species or subspecies, and in 1992 it adopted the Habitats Directive, which was aimed at the conservation of natural landscapes, and 900 species and sub-species of plants and animals (other than birds). Those two directives mean that EU members must, in addition to whatever national-level conservation measures they might have in place, identify areas for including in the “EU Natura 2000” conservation network, which is intended to protect a range of threatened species and their habitats within Europe. Its goal is to maintain or restore to favorable conservation status for any listed habitats or species.

Despite those impressive requirements, the Aichi Targets, adopted in 2010 by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with the goal of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, will probably not be met. In part, that’s because simply protecting a landscape will benefit biodiversity. That, according to University of Rome biologist Luigi Maiorano, is because they are “often established in locations that are remote or have low economic value,” despite the fact that the CBD explicitly asks that protected areas be established in places that are of “importance for biodiversity” and which are “ecologically representative.” Together with his colleagues, Maiorano has conducted perhaps the first assessment of the effectiveness of the entire Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

In particular, the group focused their research on two questions. First, what is the value of the Birds and Habitats Directives as tools for biodiversity conservation? Second, how much overlap is there between the Natura 2000 network and national protected areas? The Natura 2000 network is meant to function independently of national parks, which means it ought to be able to protect biodiversity on its own, irrespective of any additional benefit from other protected areas. They evaluated the effectiveness of the Natura 2000 network for all terrestrial vertebrates that are native to EU states, not including freshwater fish.

Of 842 terrestrial vertebrates that occur in the EU, 33% are covered by one of the two directives. 71 species, or 8% of EU’s animals are endemic, meaning they are found in the EU and nowhere else. But 29 endemic species – 7 amphibians, 11 mammals, and 11 reptiles – were not listed in the directives. Seven those species are listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, but they receive no formal protection from the EU. Of 288 species that are protected by the two directives, 229 are not listed as threatened, and half of those only occur “marginally” in the EU (less than 10% of their global range is within the EU). Taken together, that means that the Natura 2000 network is far better at protecting species and sub-species that are not listed as threatened and those that only barely call the EU home.

Still, the Natura 2000 network offered better protections than national protected areas did alone for most species. There was only one rodent offered no protection by the network and that’s mainly because when the directives were drafted, Microtus bavaricus was considered extinct (a residual population from a single locality on the German-Austrian border has since been discovered).

The Natura 2000 network, combined with national protected areas, also provided important connectivity between habitats compared with national protected areas alone. In other words, the EU-wide network didn’t only offer protection for many species missing from national parks alone, but it provided useful stepping-stones to allow many migratory and vagile species to move between different national protected areas.

The Natura 2000 network “is possibly not the most efficient system,” says Maiorano. For example, Maiorano and his colleagues recommend updating the lists of species covered by the Birds and Habitats Directives to capture changing taxonomic information, the definition and discovery of new species, and so on.

In some ways, that’s the easier problem to solve. A more complex problem is altering the process for listing species and habitats. Twenty-nine endemic vertebrate species are listed by the IUCN but are not listed by – and therefore receive no protection from – the EU. Meanwhile, more than 82% of those species that are listed by the EU are either not threatened globally or occur only marginally in the EU. (The US also has a similar pattern.) And similar problems have also been shown for invertebrates, including butterflies and dragonflies.

Efforts to address these problems have been bogged down by debate. Some folks argue that the more important problem is implementation at the local level, and focusing on species lists diverts attention away. They argue that without effective implementation, Natura 2000 would be no more than series of “paper parks” (parks established on paper only). But Maiorano argues that “having a long list of not-threatened species and applying some of the limited resources available for conservation to species only marginally occurring in the EU could make all EU conservation efforts weaker and, in the long term, more difficult to sustain both economically and politically.”

“The EU potentially has the political power and the economic and technical tools to make a real impact on biodiversity protection in unprotected areas,” conclude the researchers. Indeed, when combined with national efforts, almost one third of the EU is under some sort of protection, making for one of the largest conservation efforts in the world. Given how little space, resources, and efforts are available for biodiversity protection in general, that’s remarkable. But as ever, more work remains. – Jason G. Goldman | 27 May 2015

Source: Maiorano, L., Amori, G., Montemaggiori, A., Rondinini, C., Santini, L., Saura, S., & Boitani, L. (2015). On how much biodiversity is covered in Europe by national protected areas and by the Natura 2000 network: insights from terrestrial vertebrates. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12535.

Header image: A male Alpine ibex (Capra ibex), public domain.