New tech could help bring threatened species back from the brink

© Tyler Kelley

Nearly 1 million species face extinction — and humanity is largely to blame. 

However, a new tool provides a clear picture of where species are at the greatest risk of extinction — and helps guide conservation actions to protect them. 

Using satellite data and wildlife surveys from around the world, a team of scientists recently created the Species Threat Abatement and Restoration (STAR) metric, which for the first time identifies where and what types of human activities are most harmful to wildlife. 

In a recent interview with Conservation News, Conservation International scientists Dave Hole and Neil Cox, who helped create the STAR metric, discussed the slew of threats that species face, what the tool can do to help and how some companies could use it to “go green.” 

Question: How does STAR work? 

Neil Cox: In a nutshell, STAR is the first tool that can precisely and accurately show — at a 5-kilometer (3-mile) scale anywhere on Earth’s surface — the role that human activities play in driving species to extinction. To calculate this, we start by determining a species’ extinction risk based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species — the world's most comprehensive inventory on the topic. Part of my job at Conservation International is to help inform the IUCN Red List by researching where species’ habitats are located and the threats they face. 

Dave Hole: Then we determine the types of destructive human activities, such as logging or mining, that are harming that species, and calculate the impacts these actions are having on its populations and distribution. Based on all this data, we give each species a “STAR score.” The higher the score, the greater the species’ risk of extinction.

For example, using the tool we found that the James' Sportive Lemur — a critically endangered primate found in Madagascar — has a STAR score of 400, the highest possible on our scale. Agricultural expansion accounts for half that score and hunting makes up the other half. 

Meanwhile, the STAR score of the St. Helena Plover — a tropical bird species — would have been 400 if measured back in 2015, when habitat loss contributed to its decline. Currently, it has a score of 200, likely due to sustainable management of its habitat — including efforts to control a feral cat population on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. While species may remain vulnerable, the STAR score can, over time, offer insight into the effectiveness of efforts to protect them.  STAR scores for different species living in the same habitat can also be added up, providing a snapshot of the most prevalent threats in that area. 

Q: How can this information help protect species? 

NC: By determining what activities are harming a species, we also know what actions we need to avoid in order to protect it. For example, when we used the STAR metric in Colombia, we found that the biggest threats to native wildlife, such as sloths or jaguars, came from livestock farming. Armed with this information, local conservationists can identify and use the most effective techniques to protect these species, such as reducing the density of domestic livestock to limit intensive grazing that damages forests and grasslands.

DH: When we applied STAR at a global scale to all 5,359 amphibian, bird and mammal species on the IUCN Red List, we found that stemming habitat loss driven by farming would reduce the average global extinction rate by a whopping 24 percent. This data can act as a roadmap to help guide leaders around the world when they meet later this year — COVID-permitting — to negotiate new goals to protect Earth’s biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity


Q: So is it only governments that can use the STAR tool?

NC: No, companies and individuals can also use it to measure their impacts on species and figure out the best ways to help save life on Earth. Investing in wildlife conservation is an effective way to protect the benefits that nature provides to people, such as fresh water, pollination, soil fertility, food and medicine. And the STAR tool can help businesses, countries or civil society implement strategies that will have the greatest conservation outcomes — or “the most bang for their buck.”

DH: Exactly. In fact, we’re in the first stages of testing this tool to help stem biodiversity loss driven by the fashion industry, which relies heavily on nature to source materials for clothing and accessories. Recently, Conservation International teamed up with the Fashion Pact — a coalition of more than 200 brands, including Gucci and Adidas — to help increase sustainability across more than a third of the fashion industry. With funding from the Global Environment Facility, Conservation International is using the STAR tool to help brands determine the impacts of their supply chains on species in different places — and find ways to shrink their environmental footprint by avoiding key habitats, reducing pollution, investing in regenerative agriculture and restoring forests. Going green is essential for the future of fashion — and STAR can help brands protect.

 

The IUCN, Luc Hoffmann Institute, Vulcan Inc, Synchronicity Earth, Global Environment Facility and the Conservation International GEF Project Agency provided support for the development of the STAR metric. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Lemurs in a tree in Madagascar (© Tyler Kelly)


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