Fynbos on Table Mountain stands to benefit from the identification of many key biodiversity areas, as it has many threatened and endemic species. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMUNS/ ABUS SHAWKA
Fynbos on Table Mountain stands to benefit from the identification of many key biodiversity areas, as it has many threatened and endemic species. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMUNS/ ABUS SHAWKA

The recent adoption of the Key Biodiversity Areas Standard is a major breakthrough for global conservation.

It has brought together 12 of the largest conservation nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) worldwide to promote the identification of the most important sites for conserving biodiversity, which is rapidly declining.

The standard sets out global criteria for the identification of key biodiversity areas (KBAs) — natural places all around the world that are home to the most important populations of wild animal and plants — that require urgent conservation.

"This is the first time the conservation community has come together to develop a set of agreed-upon, standardised criteria to identify sites of global importance for biodiversity," says Daniel Marnewick, manager of the important bird biodiversity areas programme at BirdLife South Africa.

SA is working with four African countries to identify red-listed species and ecosystems

"Establishing a single measurable for all taxa [taxonomic groups] and ecosystems to identify the most important sites naturally required lengthy negotiation and participation worldwide, but it is the right way to go as it makes it so much easier for policymakers, decision-makers and spatial planners to identify which are the most important sites to conserve."

WWF, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Birdlife International and Conservation International were among the NGOs that signed the KBA Partnership agreement in September 2016 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

Within the next two months Marnewick, in partnership with the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the newly established KBA National Coordination Group, will work with a conservation planner to start reassessing and proposing SA’s comprehensive list of KBAs to the KBA Secretariat in Cambridge, UK.

"We will be one of the first countries worldwide to do a complete national assessment of our KBAs," says Marnewick.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust is funding Marnewick’s national work as well as his role in supporting the regional KBA work across Africa. The reassessment in SA is co-funded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

"The mountain fynbos in the Western Cape is a good example of where we expect to identify many KBAs, as it has so many threatened and endemic species," says Marnewick.

Another one is the remaining patches of mistbelt grasslands in KwaZulu-Natal, which have been severely fragmented. These key grasslands form part of SA’s strategic water source areas and are home to several threatened species such as the blue swallow and oribi.

The KBAs will be identified and proposed by local experts, and driven by national co-ordination groups consisting of scientists, conservation and spatial planning experts, NGOs and government departments and institutes.

As advanced conservation and spatial planning does not exist in many other African countries, KBAs will play a crucial role in informing these countries where to place protected areas.

"SA is working with four African countries to identify red-listed species and ecosystems, which they can then use to identify their key biodiversity areas," Marnewick says. "Part of the objective is also to work with local NGOs and experts in these countries to develop the local human capacity and skills to identify and manage these areas in the long term."

Marnewick says there are already about 15,000 KBAs globally, including important bird and biodiversity areas, zero-extinction sites, and key biodiversity areas identified under an older set of criteria.

This network will be expanded for other taxa and ecosystems across terrestrial, marine and freshwater habitats.

While SA has the best biodiversity spatial planning in the world, a robust network of KBAs will add another quiver to the bow to ward off pressures on our natural resources, which is immense from unsustainable development for humans and escalating threats from mining.

"How well the country’s biodiversity in KBAs will be protected will be the measure by which the rest of the world assesses our success, as it will be the case study for other countries that are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity," says Marnewick.

"A robust network of KBAs gives us traction to lobby for the protection of these sites on a global scale and to be able to apply for support from global funders who require that initiatives they support subscribe to the KBA Standard.

"Such funders include the Global Environmental Facility and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

"KBAs are a global indicator for where countries should place their protected areas and conservation areas. If countries can begin protecting the most important biodiversity areas globally, this process has the ability to start tipping the scales away from species decline."

Correction: September 28 2018

This article has been updated to amend editing errors. An earlier version said the WWF Nedbank Green Trust is playing a regional support role in Africa; it is funding Marnewick's supporting role in the region.