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Fighting extinction

Researchers identify priority conservation areas in the state of Pará


In the midst of the Amazon Region, the state of Pará naturally harbors part of the exuberant forest that is so typical of northern Brazil. A sample of just five hectares grows in the zoobotanical park of MPEG, the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi museum, near downtown Belém. There, bushy tree tops may not form a roof that keeps the sun from reaching the ground, but the agoutis still run around discreetly at night and, if one looks up, it is common to see the occasional sloth wandering through the branches slowly. As human activities advance in the state, particularly crop and livestock farming, deforestation threatens to turn the forest into protected islets such as this one, too small to safeguard the Amazon Forest’s typical biological diversity.

The Goeldi museum’s researchers decided to take action in the face of the destruction of the forest and are looking for means to achieve the targets of the Zero Extinction Program created by the Pará state government in 2007. In collaboration with Conservation International (CI-Brazil) and SEMA, the Pará State Environment Bureau, they have launched the Biota Pará program, to survey the fauna and flora threatened with extinction. Indeed, they have already gone beyond this, by proposing priority areas for conservation in the study Species threatened with extinction and critical areas for the biodiversity of Pará, coordinated by biologists Ana Luisa Albernaz and Teresa Cristina Avila-Pires, both from Goeldi.

Published in November as a book, the work analyzed almost 6,000 places where 122 species of plants (50), invertebrates (23), amphibians (2), reptiles (5), birds (30) and mammals(12) were found. Environmental models enabled the researchers to predict the total distribution of the 47 species on which there was more data. “We went into what is known about the species’ distribution in detail”, Teresa tells us. At a meeting held in February of this year, 19 researchers from the Goeldi museum and 20 experts from other areas of Brazil discussed how best to make use of these data to enable sustainable use of the environment.

The study took into account three parameters – already protected areas, the type of original vegetation and the cost of conservation given short-term pressures to deforest – to create maps indicating the areas to be added to the natural reserves already demarcated. The efficacy of the three different scenarios for the conservation of the threatened species was also evaluated. The first only took into account the full protection areas that currently exist; many of the areas proposed for conservation coincide with those that are already protected, such as indigenous territories, which should become even more strongly monitored. The second included all types of conservation units (fully protected ones and those that allow sustainable use). In this case, the recommendation was also to pay special attention to the management of the land. The third scenario encompassed all protected areas, including indigenous territories. The result showed that not even this set was capable of protecting the threatened species, even if greater effort were to be put into management and monitoring. All of them indicate that the floodplains of Amazonas and of the east and part of the southeast of Pará are heavily threatened and demand urgent attention.

According to Teresa, the book, written as a firm proposal, has already been presented to SEMA for the discussion of targets and implantation strategies. However, the published work is far from representing a full stop. “We need further data, for instance, to find out more about the situation in the eastern part of the state, which is highly degraded”, the biologist tells us. The distribution will also have to be confirmed, to check whether the species in question really do exist – or still exist – in the areas where the environmental models forecast they should be. The study also helped to highlight deficiencies in knowledge, areas on which the researchers should focus going forward. Little is known about the plants of some areas of the east and center of Pará. As for birds, the chief gaps concern the center-south and northwest. The center has also been studied little when it comes to the mammals that inhabit it.

There is still a lot of work ahead, which may taper off if immediate actions are not taken to fight the degradation of the environment. And less work is not what the area’s biologists wish.