Staving off the staggering loss of biodiversity recently predicted in the U.N.’s Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, as that alarming summary made clear, will require more than a piecemeal approach. Protecting the world’s wildlife—and our own future—will demand a holistic strategy to conserve the swaths of habitat around the world that are home to the most diverse communities of threatened species, the plants and animals that play a critical role in their ecosystems, and ultimately in the overall health of the planet. Luckily, both government and private organizations are stepping forward to meet the demand.
The work of Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) pinpoints and prioritizes the globe’s highest biodiversity areas, regions of the world with exceptional concentrations of unique and threatened species. GWC is a founding member of the Key Biodiversity Areas Partnership, established by 12 organizations to identify, map, and conserve the most crucial sites for these important reservoirs of life on earth.
Two recent success stories in GWC-affiliated wildlands underscore the vital role of habitat protection, not only for the flora and fauna that live there but also for the people that share their home, the cultures preserved there, and the increasingly vital efforts to curb climate change through nature-based solutions.
Haiti: Back From The Brink
“With less than one percent of Haiti’s original forest left, the country is on the verge of a potential ecological collapse,” says Wes Sechrest, Ph.D., GWC’s CEO and chief scientist, who is also on the Haiti National Trust’s board of trustees. “We knew we needed to take action to protect the country’s unique and threatened species, many of which are found only in Haiti. Global Wildlife Conservation has partnered with Haiti National Trust to directly protect, manage, and restore this high-priority conservation site in an effort to begin to turn the tide of centuries of unregulated environmental destruction.”
In a historic move, GWC joined forces with Rainforest Trust, Temple University in Philadelphia, and local NGO Société Audubon Haiti, in addition to Haiti National Trust, to establish the first private nature reserve in Haiti, with generous support from the Sheth Sangreal Foundation. The acquisition of more than 1,200 acres on Haiti’s Grand Bois mountain in southwest Haiti marks the first step in what will be the purchase and management of a network of private nature reserves in the country.
Mirroring what has happened across the island nation, the forests of Grand Bois are being cut for building materials and burned for charcoal in the course of slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Despite these encroachments, however, at least 50 percent of the original forest above 1,000 meters of elevation on Grand Bois has survived intact.
Over the past seven years, S. Blair Hedges, Ph.D., director of Temple University’s Center for Biodiversity, and Société Audubon Haiti president Philippe Bayard have led two expeditions to Grand Bois. During that time, they’ve documented 68 species of vertebrates, including 16 amphibian species, giving the area the distinction of being home to one of the largest groups of frog species in the Caribbean. Their discoveries included three entirely new frog species, along with the tiburon stream frog, which had not been spotted for more than three decades, despite intensive search efforts.
The expeditions also identified Grand Bois, in Haiti’s Massif de la Hotte mountain range, as a hot spot for biodiversity. In response, the government of Haiti recognized the area as a priority for conservation, confirming the critical need to protect the area, which it designated as a national park, Parc National Naturel de Grand Bois. The local community has supported efforts to maintain the natural “water tower” of the forested mountain—a marked contrast to the deforestation of nearby peaks, which has resulted in landslides and a lack of controlled, clean water in natural forests.
Haiti National Trust is now working to implement a forest management and restoration plan for Grand Bois Nature Reserve, with funding from GWC and Rainforest Trust, and to raise support to eventually build a network of private nature reserves.
Honduras: Preservation and Prevention
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles away from Haiti, the government of Honduras has announced its commitment to ending the destruction of the Moskitia rain forest—a place of legend and one of the world’s last strongholds of an incredible diversity of wildlife. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Moskitia has faced a number of threats over the past 15 years, a list that includes illegal land grabbing by cattle ranchers, wildlife trafficking, and organized crime. The result: a decimation of 30 percent of the region’s forests.
The Honduran government has brought GWC and WCS in to help plan the protection of the Moskitia, home to a number of indigenous territories and the site of a recently uncovered ancient ruin thought to be La Ciudad Blanca—the White City, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. The groups’ strategic actions for preservation will include removal of all livestock and the eviction of illegal cattle ranchers from the core area of the Moskitia, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
“It is, of course, important to protect the archeological sites, but essential not to forget about everything across the landscape, because it’s all interconnected and interdependent, ” says Chris Jordan, Ph.D., GWC’s Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator. “The Moskitia is Central America’s second-largest rain forest, one of the last wild places in the region, and it contains expansive areas of primary forest that are critical to both wildlife and to the cultural survival of the region’s indigenous peoples. As an intact, primary forest, it also has a large carbon-storing capacity that plays an important role in the mitigation of climate change.”
Like Haiti’s Massif de La Hotte, the Moskitia’s uniquely varied wildlife has earned it a designation as a key biodiversity area, a place considered critical to the health of the planet. It is a safe haven for a number of wildlife species—many of them threatened or endangered—including the Baird’s tapir, the giant anteater, the harpy eagle, the jaguar, the Geoffroy’s spider monkey, and the national bird of Honduras, the scarlet macaw. During a recent two-week biodiversity survey by Conservation International, the team documented more than 760 species, including a fish thought to be new to science, a tiger beetle previously believed to be extinct (and limited to Nicaragua), and a pale-faced bat, a species that had not been observed in Honduras in more than 75 years.
“It’s incredible to think about what more we could find there during a longer expedition, and unsettling to think what we might lose if we don’t start working to reverse recent trends in deforestation due to the expansion of cattle ranching,” Jordan says.
Happily, that thought has spurred action—and the laying of a crucial foundation to protect the future of our world.