The trouble with small things is that they are easy to ignore. If the big things get hammered (96 percent of the old-growth redwood forests have been cut, though most of the remaining stands are protected), what hope is there for the small ones? How do you convince people—especially those living in regions of highly diverse and threatened species—about the importance of saving the shrinking store of life?
In 1989 the Washington, D.C.-based organization Conservation International (CI) turned to the idea of biodiversity hotspots. To earn the label, regions had to support at least 1,500 endemic plant species and to have lost 70 percent of their primary habitat. The bad news: The California Floristic Province made the list in 1990.
"The original list had ten hotspots," says Michael Hoffmann, a biologist with CI. "Now we're up to 34. We've recently recognized that Japan has a diverse flora, and the Ethiopian Highlands also needed to be on the list because of its rare Afromontane habitats and species."
The hotspot approach exerts a strong influence in setting global conservation priorities, focusing public attention and strengthening the resolve of governments. It has helped attract an estimated 750 million dollars to the conservation cause, according to CI.
CI's hotspots often, though not always, overlap with regions selected by other groups for targeted effort, including the 218 Endemic Bird Areas defined by BirdLife International and the Global 200 Ecoregions defined by the World Wildlife Fund. Conservationists are working to increase the overlap and avoid missing important regions, recognizing that the best way to save threatened species is to protect the places where they live.
Identifying irreplaceable habitats and the species they hold is one thing; protecting them is another. On the ground, conservationists run headlong into questions of local politics, economic stability, and human need.