London: Forget pandas, tigers or even gorillas when it comes to conservation planning. Rather, it’s time to divert research on the ‘Big Five’ club of animals who thrive only in large and rich biodiverse areas and are loved by tourists.
Defying earlier researches, biologists Enrico Di Minin and Atte Moilanen at University of Helsinki decided to construct a formula that would combine the ranges of the tourist-pleasing mammals -- lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo and rhinos -- with other information to make truly useful maps for conservation planning.
The researchers focused on KwaZulu-Natal, a South African province long known to be a biodiversity hotspot, where the Big Five roam freely.
They made thousands of maps using 662 biodiversity measures, each describing the distribution of a habitat type or of a species. They considered species that conservationists care about most -- the endangered, the rare and especially the endemic, meaning the plants and animals that live in KwaZulu-Natal and nowhere else, said a report published in Nature.
The research found that distributions of the Big Five, on their own, did not do a great job of predicting where one might find high biodiversity for other species.
The areas with lots of the charismatic mammals were not necessarily the same places that were rich in invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians or plants, the study noted.
The team also created maps that overlapped several layers of data, showing the distribution of the Big Five as well as those of key birds, reptiles and amphibians.
They found that, for a given amount of land, areas that included as much of this diversity as possible also included a high percentage of the area’s plant and invertebrate diversity.
Thus, even in places - and there are many - where data about plants and invertebrates are lacking, information on charismatic big mammals can be useful if it’s supplemented by information on additional animal groups and habitat types may be a reasonable surrogate for all the rest of biodiversity, from bugs to trees to molds to microbes.
“There are now many surrogacy studies like this one. If you add more layers you get a better result. If you have got more data, use it,” Hugh Possingham of University of Queensland was quoted as saying.
The “more layers” approach to measurements of biodiversity appears to work in every land- and sea-scape, the study concluded.