More than 20 years ago, three American field biologists sat around a campfire in a remote area of Bolivia and came up with a brilliant idea. They were trying to figure out a way to protect the world's countless species of plants and animals threatened by mining, expanding cattle pastures, hydroelectric projects, large-scale agriculture and other pressures stemming from unchecked development.
The three scientists, Spencer Beebe, Murray Gell-Mann and Ted Parker, decided that sending teams of experts to conduct quick surveys of biological diversity — or biodiversity — was a great way to collect data that could convince decision makers to protect places rich in species. After taking their idea to the newly formed Conservation International, the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) was born.
CI's chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann describes RAP as "an ecological SWAT team that could accurately assess the health of an ecosystem in a fraction of the time it would take the normal team of university scientists."
People often assume the age of discovery is over, but there is so much we still don't know, and the world is still in need of adventurous explorers.
Since the first expedition in 1991, CI's RAP teams have conducted rapid biodiversity surveys in more than 80 terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments. This intensive-style data collection has led to the discovery of more than 1,300 species new to science and the protection of 21 million hectares (5.2 million acres).
IN PHOTOS: View a slideshow of the most engaging species the RAP program has discovered during the past 20 years.
"Knowledge has already helped to conserve some of the world's highest priority sites and regions, and knowledge will continue to be our strongest tool in ensuring the future of life on our planet," said Russell Mittermeier, CI's president.
In the same spirit that animated that campfire conversation so long ago, more than 10,000 people — including a 25-member delegation from CI — are gathering in Hyderabad, India, from Oct. 8-19 to discuss financing and implementing the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity.
"As the world's foremost international agreement on biodiversity, the Convention on Biological Diversity is critical for guiding national and international policies that prevent the degradation of biodiversity and ecosystems, which support human well-being," said Trond Larsen, CI's RAP director.
An indigenous Machiguenga family lives an isolated, traditional life along the Piñi Piñi River in Amazonian Peru. They are highly dependent upon the surrounding forest for food, medicine and building materials. CI's RAP+ is working with partners to empower indigenous communities to sustainably manage their natural resources. (© Trond Larsen)
And while the impulse to protect nature's precious resources is the same in 2012 as in the early 1990s, RAP and its like-minded partners have been adapting to changing environmental demands and threats. It's no longer about protecting only plants and animals.
Now known as RAP+, CI has expanded the scope of the program's strategy to address people's needs for a stable climate, fresh water and food. To ensure the continuation of these vital benefits, RAP+ focuses on the critical links among biodiversity, healthy ecosystems and human societies.
"Species are the fundamental building blocks of healthy ecosystems," Larsen said. "People around the world, especially indigenous communities, depend directly upon thousands of species of plants and animals for food, clean drinking water, medicines, building materials and many other services.
"Unassuming corals, sponges, insects and plants often turn out to contain chemical compounds that provide new medicines or display characteristics that inspire new technological innovations and solutions."
RAP+ teams of 10 to 30 scientists typically spend three to five weeks on expeditions collecting information about a region's species and how its biodiversity indicates ecosystem health. They also examine the ecosystems directly, observing vulnerability to climate change, freshwater quality, food security and the status of marine life.
The Giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) secretes chemicals that may combat AIDS, cancer and other diseases. Conserving biodiversity can provide many yet unknown medicines. The species was discovered during a series of RAP+ surveys in Suriname, aimed at establishing a conservation corridor and protecting natural resources. (© Trond Larsen)
"We talk to communities about what species or natural resources they rely on in their environment," Larsen said. "For example, if it's fish, we look at how many there are, where they are, whether there are more closer to the village or farther away. We use these kinds of scientific data to establish guidelines for sustainable management."
RAP+ also monitors and tries to mitigate the effects of large infrastructure projects such as oil and gas extraction, mining, and the construction of highways and hydroelectric dams. RAP+ data have been used to plan community conservation areas for indigenous groups in Peru and China.
Of course, CI does not accomplish its work alone. In addition to collaborating with many partner organizations, CI has trained more than 400 students and scientists so that they can carry out environmental research in their home countries.
As CI continues to monitor and protect species and ecosystems in places that are often only reachable by helicopter, boat and days of hiking dense forest trails, RAP+ scientists will carry on the quest of its original founders.
"People often assume the age of discovery is over, but there is so much we still don't know, and the world is still in need of adventurous explorers," Larsen said.
IN DEPTH: Follow our scientists on expeditions with dispatches from the field.