Protecting the 10,000 Important Bird Areas identified to date would make an enormous contribution towards maintaining not just birds but much other biodiversity. While formal protection often remains the preferred option, there are many other, often innovative, approaches that can also be highly effective. These include ensuring effective application of safeguard policies and environmental assessments for development projects. In all cases, maximising the involvement of local communities and stakeholders, and a commitment to long-term engagement, are keys to success.
Gaps in protection are being filled, in at least some parts of the world (). Important Bird Areas (IBAs) can make a crucial contribution to identifying where these gaps exist (). In the European Union, where Member States are required to designate 'Special Protection Areas' under the legal instrument of the Birds Directive, IBAs have been recognised as a 'shadow' list of Special Protection Areas and inform the process of site designation in many countries. This has led to a slow but significant increase in recent years in the number of IBAs granted legal protection (, ) while studies have shown that the key bird species are doing better in those Member States that have designated larger proportions of their territory as Special Protection Areas (). In Africa and Asia, the IBA programme is also having an impact on the designation of new protected areas (, , ). Legal protection, although not always the answer can help: in Kenya at least, those IBAs which have formal protection are doing rather better overall than those which do not ().
Incorporating Important Bird Areas (IBAs) into formal protected-area networks may not always be feasible. It is also not always desirable—it could be counter-productive, if, for example, it disrupts existing traditional land-use practices that are responsible for creating or maintaining a site’s significance. Indeed, the best way to conserve an area’s biodiversity can range widely, depending on circumstances—from strict protection to community management for sustainable use (). For currently unprotected IBAs, a diversity of approaches may need to be considered, including private reserves, conservation easements, forest concessions and community conservation contracts. Whatever the governance model for an IBA, community engagement and involvement in its conservation will usually be desirable—and often essential. This is increasingly being achieved through the actions of Local Conservation Groups, who raise awareness in site-adjacent communities and help protect and monitor IBAs (, , , , ). The results of such local involvement can lead to significant conservation benefit, even in difficult circumstances (, ). The threats from climate change bring new and growing challenges; the existing IBA network (complemented by adaptation measures and adding new sites) will play a key role in mitigating climate change impacts on birds and other biodiversity ().
Species and sites face an array of threats and these may include planned developments funded by a range of financial institutions, Over the years, most of these institutions have developed so-called safeguard policies, against which all proposed finance or loans are ‘tested’ to make sure that will not have a negative environmental or social impact. These include the World Bank’s Natural Habitats Operational Policy (OP4), and the International Finance Corporation’s ‘Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resources Management’. Applying these is helping to ensure that projects posing significant risks to Important Bird Areas and other sites are shelved or redesigned at an early stage in any planning cycle.
Planning at local, sub-national, and national level needs accurate and up-to-date information to ensure that key sites are kept safe and the impacts of specific developments need to be carefully assessed. A range of Strategic and specific Environmental Impact Assessment regulation and legislation is now enshrined under national law, and integrated widely into regional and multilateral agreements. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a key tool in demonstrating the risks posed by developments—like roads or mines—to critical biodiversity (). To be effective, however, EIAs must be carried out rigorously and their recommendations (which could be to halt or radically redesign projects) applied. The biodiversity information available for IBAs can provide a firm basis for integrating conservation priorities into development planning ().