Stanford researchers offer new comprehensive conservation strategy

Costa Rica’s rich biological diversity of birds and other wildlife drives a thriving tourism industry and provides economically vital services to farmers, such as pest suppression, crop pollination and seed dispersal. Perspectives on why and how that diversity should be conserved can be equally varied, and sometimes conflict. A recent study by Stanford researchers may lead to greater alignment of conservation efforts in Costa Rica and around the world.

Unsurprisingly, approaches to conservation depend on objectives. For example, creating large, isolated nature preserves may protect endangered species, but would not likely benefit farmers with enhanced crop pollination. Similarly, the steps taken to preserve pollinators may not help save rare species that attract tourist birdwatchers, according to co-author PAUL EHRLICH, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Surprisingly, though, the study’s approach shows that with appropriate planning, many diverse objectives can be reached,” he said. The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stems from a long-term research project focused on harmonizing agriculture, conservation and human livelihoods.

The Rufous-tailed Jacamar (Galbula ruficauda) is found more often in forested habitats than open, agricultural areas_Credit Daniel Karp
The Rufous-tailed Jacamar (Galbula ruficauda) is found more often in forested habitats than open, agricultural areas. (Credit Daniel Karp)

Over a six-year period, the researchers measured the species diversity of birds located at 18 sites in three settings: coffee plantations, a forest reserve and within “forest fragments” (small patches of forest surrounded by farms). They then began identifying the value of various species to farmers by testing fecal samples to quantify how often birds eat insect pests and disperse seeds. They also measured the birds’ value to conservationists and tourists by combing conservation literature, national newspapers and ecotourism websites.

After evaluating species diversity in each setting, the researchers found that maintaining small patches of forest in and around farms can help resolve conflicts and achieve most of their conservation goals, satisfying benefits to agriculture, people who are motivated by their personal connection to nature and nature’s inherent worth.

“With so many underlying motivations, people often talk past each other when trying to develop conservation strategies,” said lead author DANIEL KARP, postdoctoral scholar affiliated with the Stanford Woods Institute and a NatureNet fellow with Stanford and The Nature Conservancy. “Our goal was to organize common conservation objectives to help conservationists decide how and where to focus their efforts.”

“We see a major opportunity that is not yet on the radar of initiatives in agriculture, conservation or human development – and the window for seizing this opportunity is closing rapidly,” added co-author GRETCHEN DAILY, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute.

The researchers say their approach to balancing conservation interests could be used to measure tradeoffs in ecosystems around the world. “In agricultural landscapes, where sustaining rural livelihoods and local economies are critical, ensuring that interventions address multiple motivations for conservation could garner widespread support,” the authors write.

Next, Karp wants to continue to study how to balance conservation objectives, but in the context of a changing climate. “We tend to look at land areas statistically, but it is important for us to understand how converting forest to agriculture will interact with a changing climate and how species will be impacted,” Karp says. Through this research, Karp hopes to understand what kind of conservation approaches may help species survive under a changing climate.