Climate Change Increases Costs of Conserving Biodiversity

Two indris in Madagascar.

Two indri in Madagascar. (© CI/Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

This week, a group of international researchers convened by CI released several new studies on the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Jonah Busch, lead author of the paper “Climate Change and the Cost of Conserving Species in Madagascar,” explains his new research in today’s blog.

We’re looking for indri. The indri (Indri indri) is a gentle tree-dwelling lemur that resembles a mashup of a koala and a panda — which is to say, it’s cute. It’s also the largest of the 92 species of lemurs native to the island of Madagascar. My research partner and I have been hiking for hours in the mountainous rainforest of Mantadia National Park. The forest is steep, muddy, and — no surprise — rainy. We’ve seen unique frogs and birds that live nowhere else on Earth, but so far no indri.

Our guide leaves us under the shelter of a small covered scenic overlook while he goes to track indri more quickly on his own. We gaze out at the rain falling on a vast green expanse of forest and wonder whether we’ll ever see the creature we’re looking for.

Long after we’ve given up scanning the horizon with binoculars, who should appear just a few yards in front of us but a pair of indri. After hours of trying to find the indri, they have found us. They are unconcerned and docile, like stuffed animals.

The value of Madagascar’s forests goes far beyond the charisma of its animals and plants. Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is famously the source of life-saving medicines used against Hodgkin’s disease and juvenile leukemia. Forests keep soil in place and out of rivers so that farmers downstream can grow rice irrigated with clean water. The carbon stored by the trees and soil of the dense forest protects us all from climate change. The cuteness of the wildlife doesn’t hurt either — tourism is a major industry in Madagascar, thanks in large part to the lemurs.

Madagascar’s forests have long been under intense pressure of being burned and cleared for rice and cattle production, as well as logging. Today less than 16 percent of Madagascar remains covered in forest, down from 28 percent in the 1950s. Even when land that has been cleared for agriculture is later abandoned, the forest won’t grow back on its own. This is because seeds in Madagascar are spread not by birds flying over open ground, but by lemurs that are skittish about venturing far beyond forest boundaries.

Due to intense human pressure on the land and political upheaval, conserving these forests is a daunting challenge even in the best of times. But now forests face an additional challenge. Climate change is forcing many species to move uphill and to cooler latitudes. Species are moving out of protected forest habitats into unprotected forests or places where forest has disappeared.

Conserving species has become a moving target. It is no longer enough to conserve habitat where species currently live; conservation needs to plan for where species will live in the future, and how they will get there. This means expanding focus from ensuring funding for currently protected forests, to finding creative ways to conserve unprotected forests and restore native forests in some places where they used to be.

Tall trees in old growth forest in Mantadia National Park, Madagascar.

Tall trees in old growth forest in Mantadia National Park, Madagascar. Forests like this absorb carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate global climate change. (© CI/Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

The key to lasting forest conservation is ensuring local people benefit from forests so that trees are valued more alive than dead. A great example is Conservation International’s work to protect the 381,000 hectare (941,000-acre) Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ) in Madagascar. Approximately the size of Rhode Island, CAZ links Mantadia with two other national parks, encompassing one of the largest remaining blocks of rainforest in the country.

CAZ is a new model of protected area for Madagascar. Villagers take responsibility for decisions about how the forest is used and commit to protecting it; in exchange, they receive economic incentives in the form of direct payments and community development projects.

Our research team wanted to know how climate change would affect the cost of such conservation endeavors. Biological modeling told us that suitable habitat ranges for many species that currently live in forests are predicted to shift into areas where forests have disappeared.

From talking with project managers across Madagascar, we learned that protecting existing forests in community-managed protected areas costs between US$ 160-576 per hectare, while restoring forests in the same areas costs six times as much. So, while forest restoration is a necessary expense in some places, the top priority for biodiversity conservation is still to conserve remaining forests wherever possible.

This research is part of a collection of studies on how climate change affects the cost of conservation. Our colleagues found that climate change adds between US$ 260 million and US$ 1 billion to the cost of safeguarding the survival of hundreds of South Africa’s iconic Protea flower species, while in central California climate change doubles the cost of protecting habitat for 11 local species.

So taking action to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere not only benefits agriculture, health and infrastructure, it makes conserving plants and animals like the indri considerably cheaper and easier as well.

Our dedicated team at Conservation International is generating new scientific knowledge of the effects of climate change, demonstrating through projects around the world that conserving nature benefits human well-being, and pressing for international action to slow climate change and adapt to its impacts.

Dr. Jonah Busch is a climate and forest economist at Conservation International.

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