When thinking about best practices for biodiversity conservation, often the first things that come to mind are parks, sanctuaries, and reserves that are protected from human development. But with eight billion people in the world, there’s only so much space that can be walled-off from human use.  

A new research paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability and co-authored by Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti, a visiting assistant professor of animal behavior, offers new ways to reimagine conservation that incorporate both human needs and the delicate efforts required to preserve biodiversity.

The paper, “Prioritizing India’s landscapes for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being,” takes on even more relevance following the recent United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15). In order to reach the goal set in Montreal of designating 30 percent of the planet under some form of conservation, more attention must be paid to places where humans coexist with biodiversity. Dr. Chakrabarti explains why this is so important and why India is an ideal place to reshape conservation. 

What makes this study so unique? 

With this particular research, we have provided a pathway for safeguarding biodiversity conservation without compromising the economic aspirations of people. It’s very pragmatic, because when we talk about biodiversity conservation, we mostly talk about wildlife, forests, and natural habitats. But what happens to the people who live off the same land or who cannot now live off of it because we have put a protective fence around it? 

What’s the concept of “land-sharing”?

Parks and reserves are islands of protection where humans are typically not allowed. Such land-sparing is a relatively modern and Western creation that stems from the pristine/inviolate idea of wildernesses. However, much of the world’s biodiversity share space with humans, and such areas are generally located in the Global South which is also more densely populated and has faster growing economies.

Currently, mainstream conservation biology focuses mainly on the land-sparing approach where protected areas are the silver bullet for conservation. However, if we don’t consider shared areas, then we miss out on safeguarding both human interests  and biodiversity. 

Why is it important to be thinking more about spaces where humans and biodiversity exist together? 

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have changed the face of the planet. With every moment, human expansion into wildlife-occupied habitats occurs. Some of our species conservation programs have performed very well, with wildlife populations recovering and dispersing beyond the protected fortresses of parks and sanctuaries. Consequently, there are many places where the majority of wildlife now coexists with humans. So if we don’t include these places in formal conservation paradigms, then we are just dooming them to die. And humans, too, because such shared landscapes have a delicate balance that provides for both biodiversity and human needs. Everything is interwoven! 

Why is India a great place to study land sharing? 

India is a mega-diverse country with about 1.4 billion people. Human density in India is about 20 times more crowded than the U.S. The country is also home to 70 percent of the global tiger population, the largest population of Asian elephants, the only population of Asian lions, a formidable number of snow leopards, the Indian rhinoceros – and I’m just talking about charismatic megafauna. In India, humans and wildlife share space in every context, which makes it a great place to reimagine future conservation agendas. 

In what ways do you hope this research will be used? 

With this study, we have delineated areas that have to be safeguarded with a judicious mix of both land-sparing and land-sharing. There is a mix of multi-use landscapes where people and wildlife coexist, and we have prioritized those areas based on the diversity of species, habitats and ecosystem services, or the tangible services that nature provides to humans such as clean water, food, fodder, etc. Some of these areas require protection right away because we now know that these are fragile ecosystems, and building roads, for example, probably isn’t the best idea. We can have alternatives that are relevant for economic growth but also do not compromise the delicate biodiversity of the area. 

We wanted to give government officials an idea of how to go about doing righteous development that does not significantly compromise biodiversity or human growth. If you are focusing on economic growth, you would need roads, electricity, railways and the like, but there are some areas that require a different, more thoughtful and inclusive approach.

The science is clear that we need to safeguard biodiversity for our own benefit and for its own value, but administrators and politicians don’t have a roadmap for how to and where, and our paper provides a clear strategic outline. 

Were there any surprises in the research?

What I was really surprised about was that only 15 percent of all the priority areas that we could delineate fell within protected areas. When you think about how these protected areas were created in the first place, they probably were based on one criterion: habitat or biodiversity, for example. Owing to this unilateral approach, many crucial areas were never deemed important — grasslands for example that have been traditionally considered to be wastelands since colonial forestry days because they don’t yield timber. However, they harbor fragile habitats and endemic biodiversity, and provide an array of ecosystem services. Our results show how important it is to reconsider big-picture conservation approaches and include land-sharing into the mix.

This study focused on India, but what lessons can be applied all over the world? 

Much of the world’s biodiversity lies in the Global South, which also has massive human populations with economic aspirations that cannot be compromised. What our study has shown is that you can use a fine-scale prioritization method to delineate and safeguard habitats and land parcels for multiple uses. Why is this important? Because that’s probably where the Global North is heading, as well. Also, it was recently concluded at COP15 that 30 percent of global areas, both terrestrial and marine, must be under some level of conservation. There’s no way we can get there just through land-sparing as we know it. How India syncs its biodiversity conservation with human aspirational needs is something that would be a good lesson for the entire planet. 

February 6 2023

Back to top