Nature and Biodiversity

What are biodiversity hotspots and why do they matter?

More than two-fifths of the species found in biodiversity hotspots are at high risk of extinction.

More than two-fifths of the species found in biodiversity hotspots are at high risk of extinction. Image: Pexels/aad Alaiyadhi

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Nature and Biodiversity

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  • They are places that are both biologically rich and deeply threatened.
  • They represent just 2.5% of Earth’s land surface, but support more than half of the world’s plant species as endemics — i.e., species found no place else
  • Biodiversity loss is one of the biggest threats to humanity, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 has warned.
  • So what can be done to protect these critically important biodiversity hotspots?

Some places on Earth are irreplaceable – literally impossible to replicate anywhere on the planet. Uniquely rich in animal and plant life and critical to the survival of humanity, these biodiversity hotspots are frequently under threat.

Just 36 places have been designated as biodiversity hotspots. Although they account for just 2.5% of the Earth’s surface, the forests, wetlands and other ecosystems in these hotspots are home to two billion people, including some of the world’s poorest.

The people who live here depend on the area’s rich biodiversity for their livelihoods, but the ecosystems in these hotspots have much wider benefits for the whole of humanity. Experts say they account for 35% of the “ecosystem services” needed for human survival.

Scientists define ecosystem services as the provision of food and water, regulation of the climate and cultural benefits such as recreational activity and stress reduction. Biodiversity is also critical for the development of healthy soil which sustains plants and animals.

Map showing the world's biodiversity hotspots.
These are the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Image: European Commission

The hotspots stretch around the globe from the islands of the Caribbean to the tropical forests of West Africa and from Madagascar to Southeast Asia and on across the Pacific Ocean to Melanesia and the tropical coast of South America’s Andes mountain range.

What defines a biodiversity hotspot?

The importance of biodiversity hotspots was first identified by pioneering environmentalist Norman Myers in his paper ‘Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities’, published, posthumously, in Nature in 2000.

Today, Conservation International defines a biodiversity hotspot as an area that contains at least 1,500 plants that are found nowhere else on Earth and that is under threat with less than a third of its natural vegetation remaining.

The organization states that biodiversity underpins all life on Earth. “Without species, there would be no air to breathe, no food to eat, no water to drink. There would be no human society at all,” it says.

More than two-fifths of the species found in biodiversity hotspots are at high risk of extinction, according to a study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and almost a quarter are at very high risk, due to the climate crisis.

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How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 found that biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse were one of the fastest deteriorating global risks over the next decade. Environmental risks made up six of the top 10 risks likely to materialize by 2033.

Have you read?

What can be done about biodiversity loss?

The five main drivers of global biodiversity loss were summed up in the Forum’s 2020 report The Future of Nature and Business as: changes in land and sea use; overexploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species.

So what’s to be done? The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which invests in protecting biodiversity hotspots, says it’s vital to work with local communities and civil society groups in these areas to reduce the threats to their future.

The Fund’s founders believed that providing local people with a means of livelihood is the best way to safeguard endangered ecosystems. So, as well as funding the removal of invasive alien species, CEPF also supports income generating activities like eco-tourism.

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