Cost-Benefit Analyses Of Conservation: A Case Study From China
China is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and is therefore the focus of many conservation groups. However, it is also a developing nation, and with development comes industry and population growth. When the growth of the economy is pitted against conservation, history tells us that human interests often win out. Therefore, conservationists should focus their efforts on areas which provide the most biodiversity at the lowest cost and impact to humans. This study attempts to identify the areas within mainland China that conservationists should prioritize.
Analyzing the costs and benefits of conservation is not a new area of study. However, this paper is set apart in several ways: First, previous studies did not consider an area’s level of human disturbance or its effects; second, previous studies’ scoring mechanisms for measuring biodiversity were inadequate; third, previous studies focused on either species or ecosystem indicators, rather than integrating both.
This study used both ecosystem data – biome type and vegetation maps – as well as the documented ranges of endangered mammals, birds, and plants. To map the level of human interference in a region, the authors looked at proportion of land converted to human use, as well as human population density, gross domestic product, and road density. The authors analyzed China twice – once including the human disturbance index (HDI) and one excluding it.
When the analysis was done, the researchers found that accounting for human interference levels resulted in many areas being assigned higher conservation priorities. More areas were marked as “irreplaceable” – that is, they have unique features or are home to the entire population of an endangered species. The majority of priority areas identified were in high-altitude, rugged, and remote areas, such as Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. However, several were also found in less-remote, mid-altitude areas, including developed provinces like Fujian and Hunan. Many of the priority areas in developed regions are especially crucial due to the increased threat from economic development and urbanization.
The main takeaway from this study is the importance of considering human development levels when setting conservation targets. This is necessary for a cost-effective conservation program, which in turn is necessary for conservation and economic development to co-exist. For the foreseeable future, economic growth will remain a top priority of the vast majority of national governments. Animal advocates have to keep in mind that some goals must be set with the assumption that they are not the top priority of world leaders. To communicate messages effectively to developing nations, animal advocates have to make their goals cost-effective and unobtrusive. Further refinements to the process used in this study can help produce conservation plans that co-exist with human development.