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Hotspots: Population Growth in Areas of High Biodiversity

Biologists have identified 35 areas, called biodiversity hotspots, which are especially rich in endemic species but threatened by human activities. Can addressing population growth in these areas help conserve threatened species and improve community health?

Date & Time

Feb. 29, 2012
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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More than one-fifth of the world’s population lives in biodiversity hotspots – “areas that are particularly rich in biodiversity and endemic species,” said John Williams of the University of California, Davis, at the Wilson Center on February 29. And those populations are growing faster than the global average. Add to that the fact that “biodiversity continues to decline globally, despite increasing investments in conservation,” said David Lopez-Carr of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the need for new approaches to conservation becomes evident.

Williams and Lopez-Carr were joined by Dr. Vik Mohan, director of the sexual and reproductive health program for Blue Ventures, a London-based conservation nongovernment organization that works with communities on the remote western coast of Madagascar.

To respond to the demands of the communities and to better protect biodiversity hotspots, the speakers argued that conservation efforts need to incorporate health and livelihood services directed at the growing populations living nearby.

A Complex Relationship

“The relationship between population and biodiversity loss or conservation is a pretty complex relationship,” said Williams.

He offered Latin America and the Caribbean as an example of the multiple factors that can affect how population and biodiversity interact. Population growth in the region has slowed, and agricultural expansion is driving habitat loss as the population ages and urbanizes and as increasing per capita GDP contributes to higher levels of consumption.

In the Indo-Pacific region, stretching from East Asia to Australia, high population growth coupled with economic growth has coincided with an increase in the exploitation of rare species for illegal trade, according to Williams. And in Africa, where the population is growing quickly but without comparable economic growth and amid high levels of instability, subsistence drives ecological exploitation.

Biodiversity and Family Planning in Madagascar

“People who live in the biodiversity hotspots are typically poorer, typically have poorer access to healthcare than their counterparts in the cities or in the world at large, and typically have poorer health than those counterparts,” said Mohan.

Blue Ventures has been working in Madagascar since 2003. The island is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world; 80 percent of its plant and animal life is endemic, meaning it exists there and nowhere else, said Mohan. At the same time, Madagascar is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest growing countries, with a population growth rate of 2.9 percent and an average total fertility rate of 4.6 children per woman.

Blue Ventures initially came to the country to improve conservation in the island’s coastal villages, where residents survive largely on subsistence fishing. But once there, the group quickly found that the population was “growing so rapidly that in spite of our best conservation efforts, the demand for those finite coastal resources [was] outstripping supply,” said Mohan. 

“The number of people who are going out to catch fish to feed their to feed their families is going up exponentially, and those fisherman are having to work harder and harder to catch smaller fish that are farther and farther down the food web.”

Realizing that trend, Mohan said that “just by asking a few very basic questions, we unearthed a huge unmet need for healthcare and a huge unmet need for family planning in particular.” 

In response, Mohan and his colleagues opened up a family planning clinic in Andavadoaka, one of the villages Blue Ventures serves. On the clinic’s first day, Mohan said, “20 percent of all women of reproductive age came asking for contraception.” Following that opening, they “rapidly found [that] this unmet need was mirrored in every single village along the coast that we worked in,” he said. Since then, modern contraceptive prevalence, initially about seven percent, has increased four-fold, while birth rates have fallen by about one-third. All in all, Mohan said, the population of the Velondriake region, where Blue Ventures operates, is five percent smaller now than it would have been without the group’s family planning services.

Rural Areas Driving Population Growth

Across the developing world, Lopez-Carr said that unmet need for family planning “remains significantly higher” in biodiversity hotspots. Given that high unmet need, especially in Africa, it is easy to infer that “conservation may be less sustainable…if it does not consider health,” he said.

In his ongoing research on population and biodiversity, Lopez-Carr looks at how fertility rates compare in and out of hotspot areas and between regional and local levels. At the country and province level, “high-value conservation areas do not have unusually high total fertility rates (TFRs),” he said. But at more localized levels, “in the most remote rural areas, TFRs remain high, and in many cases, in the most remote rural areas, the demand for family planning is still very low,” indicating that these areas are still in the early stages of their demographic transitions.

The fact that the sub-state picture can look so different from the state-level picture means that there is more work for researchers to do, said Lopez-Carr. “Where the fertility rates are highest is where we have the least data,” he said, and that has significant implications for understanding future population growth. 

Looking at UN population projections, the world’s net population gains will be in its poorest cities, he said, but “virtually all this growth is going to be from migration, fueled by remaining high fertility in rural areas.” And “virtually all of that growth will be predicated upon the timing, magnitude, [and] pace of the fertility transition in rural areas.”

Better understanding the demographic picture in rural areas is therefore critical – not just to improving health and preserving biodiversity in the world’s hotspots, but to honing down more accurate global population projections as well.

Drafted by Kate Diamond edited by Schuyler Null.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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