- Global biodiversity decline is primarily driven by habitat loss. Deforestation, the primary driver of terrestrial habitat loss, is increasing worldwide, with the most significant impact in the world biodiversity hotspots. Sadly, specific knowledge of such impacts in biodiversity-rich but data-poor countries are still unknown, and many national and regional narratives still use insufficient knowledge as an excuse to avoid moving forward with research and conservation actions. Species distribution information in biodiversity-rich countries is scarce, and its use in political decisions is limited. Even when international treaties have raised the need to improve existing information, such advances are far from being applied, and threats continue to mount in biodiversity hotspots. Conservation planning in nations that lack biodiversity information usually follows coarse-scale criteria that ignore species distribution data. This absence of information disconnects species habitat requirements from landscape conservation prioritizations. Such disconnects are particularly pronounced when analyzing biodiversity knowledge at regional and local scales, where species conservation actions are required.
Colombia exemplifies this problem. The country is globally known as a biodiversity hotspot (based on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility records there are 62,829 reported species), and still maintains significant natural forest remnants within and outside Protected Areas, which all contribute to habitat conservation. As a result of the sociopolitical history and ongoing violence that impedes extensive and continued research efforts, the spatial distribution of most Colombian species is still unknown. Recent shifts in the internal conflict and the current implementation of peace treaties with the remaining guerrillas are transforming Colombia into a safer place. Such changes have increased economic interest and development expectation resulting in the accelerated forest and habitat loss. Between 2015 and 2016 the national deforestation rate increased by 44%. This forest loss is alarming and can have huge impacts on our biodiversity. Sadly, current knowledge is insufficient to predict the implications of such a transformation to biodiversity. The research and conservation of these remnant forests fall within the jurisdiction of regional environmental agencies (either state agencies of Protected Areas Territorial units). Such tasks are overwhelming and limited by budget constraints and scarcity of technical personnel and expertise.
In my research, I designed and tested different methodological approaches to assess existing biodiversity knowledge at a regional scale; I then performed different prioritization exercises to identify areas where research and conservation efforts should be allocated. All chapters focus on some of the most known vertebrate species (Class Mammalia) in the most transformed region of Colombia (The Colombian Caribbean region) an area that resembles the general limitations of data-poor realities.
In the first chapter, I present an introduction to the data limitations of Colombia. I also present how this limitation is also common in another biodiversity rich and data poor countries and explain the general problems associated with data scarcity. I then present how the following chapters were constructed as methodological steps to assess current data scarcity and prioritize areas to do critical future research on the conservation and management of species habitat. I developed this chapter and all the following chapters using data from the Colombian Caribbean region, and all our chapters are applied in the Colombian context. I expect that the issues I report with data scarcity in Colombia are congruent with realities in other biodiversity-rich and data-poor countries.
In the second chapter, I presented a methodological process to assess primary biodiversity quality and quantity and then quantify and map primary biodiversity knowledge. I then constructed an ‘urgency scoring’ to prioritize areas that require research efforts due to lack of knowledge, estimated species richness and endangered species richness. The use of the proposed method allowed me to highlight departmental and biogeographic provinces’ research needs and generate easy-to-communicate maps of areas to allocate biodiversity research efforts. We found that current mammalian biodiversity knowledge in the region is extremely scarce; 55% of the region has not been sampled since 1950. In the remaining study area, the information quantity and quality is predominantly categorized as ‘low.’
In the third chapter, I used one charismatic species (Panthera onca) to present a multicriteria planning approach (i.e., habitat distribution, connectivity, likelihood of human-jaguar conflict occurrence). This method allows inclusion of several critical species ecological attributes, like habitat and connectivity distribution, which enables regional environmental institutions to address complex landscape decisions that result in conservation and management of species’ habitat. The approach used in this chapter focused on mammalian carnivore species to examine challenges associated with developing distribution models in data-poor regions. The results obtained allowed me to identify conservation areas and associate them with environmental agencies’ goals, highlighting the need for multi-stakeholder collaborative approaches. At the regional level, I also emphasized the importance of the private lands to ensure jaguar habitat and connectivity. Only 16.28% of the identified areas of jaguar management and conservation occur within protected areas and the remaining fall on private lands (83.72%), either within (35.68%) or outside (48.04%) buffer zones of protected areas (PAs). I also was able to map areas were different environmental agencies jurisdiction overlap and can work together to address specific management and conservation actions.
Finally, in the fourth chapter, I evaluated the efficacy of the existing protected areas for ensuring coverage of habitat and connectivity for species of the order Carnivora. I then tested the potential impact of increasing conservation areas by using different environmental landscape policies currently discussed within Colombia (protected areas PA or payment for environmental services PES). Our results showed that protected areas cover only a minor percentage of the total connectivity areas (x ̅= 26.8% ± 20.2 SD), while payment for environmental services if applied broadly, could contribute substantially to mammalian carnivore’s connectivity (x ̅=45.4% ±12.8 SD). I then compared the two landscape policies in a realistic scenario where only limited areas are set aside. I found that new PAs were superior to PES protecting more connectivity areas for most species (12 of the 16 species).
In its entirety, this dissertation presents different approaches for using existing biodiversity distribution data to create spatial representations of areas that require research, conservation or management. All chapters present critical information that can be used to move forward research and conservation actions in Colombia and show different methodologies to create species distribution models within data-poor realities.