13 Nov 2018

Nearly half of endangered species’ last refuges unprotected

The Alliance for Zero Extinction has mapped 1,483 highly threatened species that are found only at a single site. But this major new assessment highlights the urgent need for better protection of these irreplaceable places.

The araripe Manakin (Critically Endangered) can be found at only one site in Brazil © Ciro Albano
The Araripe Manakin's final refuge in Brazil is protected by the state © Ciro Alban
By Jessica Law

Sometimes, a species’s population can dwindle so much that it can only be found in one location. Sometimes, a species has only ever lived in one location, but is now facing threats that weren’t around before. No matter the reason, protecting these sites is crucial to prevent species from going extinct.

That’s where the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) comes in – a partnership of 95 organisations from all around the world, working together to bring species back from the brink of extinction. Founding members of the Alliance, BirdLife, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) have spent the past three years leading a global expert consultation to update the science and map of the last known locations of Endangered and Critically Endangered plants and animals. This year’s major update has increased the number of these ‘AZE trigger species’ to 1,483, confined to 853 ‘AZE sites’ across the world. The map is invaluable in helping the conservation world decide where to focus its efforts, and in informing developers of the places they should avoid.

Dr Ian Burfield, Global Science Coordinator at BirdLife International and lead coordinator of the new AZE site assessment, says: “We now recognise 853 AZE sites – far more of these ‘last chance saloons’ for species than previously known. In order to save any species, the number one priority is to protect their habitats – but a shocking 43% of these sites lack any formal protection whatsoever.”

This work falls under a wider project, led by BirdLife and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme, working with the governments of Brazil, Chile, Madagascar and other countries to better embed AZE sites in their national land use planning and conservation efforts.

Brazil, the country with the third highest number of AZE sites in the world, is at the forefront of tackling this problem. In July, it became the first country to embed AZE sites into its legislation, making sure they are considered in all of the country’s development and conservation planning. In the light of BirdLife’s recent announcement of the likely extinction in the wild of former Brazilian resident Spix’s Macaw - better known as Blu from the animated film Rio - this crucial act has not come a moment too soon.

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Brazil is working hard to reintroduce the Spix's Macaw into the wild © Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation

Ugo Eichler Vercillo, Director of the Department of Species Conservation and Management in the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, emphasises the wider purpose of AZE sites: “With some way still to go to meet agreed global targets to increase protected areas and tackle species declines, protecting AZE sites would be the fastest way to achieve both at the same time and should be a global conservation priority.”

Past successes have shown that the AZE approach is effective. A former AZE site in Colombia, home to two spectacular but highly threatened species of poisoned dart frog, was decreed as Ranita Dorada Amphibian Reserve – the world’s first protected area specifically for amphibians. Thanks to this protection, the frogs’ status has improved to the extent that they no longer qualify as AZE trigger species, and the site has now been removed from the AZE list.

The Azores Bullfinch is another success story. After being listed as an AZE trigger species, conservationists began a large-scale habitat restoration campaign on its home island of São Miguel in the Azores, Portugal, eliminating the invasive weeds that were choking out its food plant. The bird’s population ballooned from just 40 pairs in 2005 to almost 1,000 mature individuals in 2016 – and when it was downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable, São Miguel was removed from the AZE site list.

The Azores Bullfinch's habitat has been removed from the AZE map thanks to its recovery © Ricardo Ceia

“It’s been proven that well-managed protected areas prevent extinctions,” says Mike Parr, AZE Chairman and President of ABC. “The governments of at least 20 nations are already acting to protect their AZE sites, but we urgently need all 109 countries and territories with AZE sites to take action to protect these unique places.”

The need to scale up these existing successes will be a key topic on the agenda at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Biodiversity Conference in Egypt this November, with the conservation of AZE sites included as an urgent priority action to accelerate progress towards the 2020 Biodiversity Targets.

Dr Noëlle Kümpel, Head of Policy at BirdLife International and coordinator of the project, says: “The loss of species like Spix’s Macaw from the wild is a real wake-up call, but with concerted action it is not too late to turn things around. AZE sites really are our last chance – if we lose these areas, we lose entire species found nowhere else on Earth. The threats to these sites from unsustainable development are only increasing, so we urgently need other governments to follow Brazil’s lead and to put in place strong measures to protect these irreplaceable places.”


For more information, read the full press release here.

Follow the BirdLife delegation at the UN Biodiversity Summit in Egypt, 17-29 November @BirdLife_Policy