Oct. 27, 2017 – For twenty-five years, we have known that we need to spend more on nature conservation, or face a modern mass extinction as serious as that of the dinosaurs. But governments and donors have been unwilling to come up with the necessary budgets, often because there was little hard evidence that the money spent on conservation does any good (especially in developing countries, where investments can easily go astray).

However, in new research published today in Nature, an international team of scientists led by the University of Oxford, shows that thanks to the $14.4 billion spent on global conservation between the 1992 Earth Summit and 2003, has significantly reduced biodiversity losses.

The fruit of ten years’ of collaboration, the study was led by Dr Anthony Waldron, a former researcher at the Oxford University Biodiversity Institute, who worked with the University of Illinois, Brown University, University College London, and the University of Georgia.

The team built and analysed a huge database of conservation funding and biodiversity declines across 109 signatory countries that received the funding between 1996 and 2008. The study used a complex algorithm to divide up responsibility for global species declines by country and analysed how the relative ranking of species changed in the IUCN Red list – the world authority on the threat status of species, which ranks each species status from ‘least concern’ to ‘extinct’, compared to the amount spent on conservation in each country. The findings revealed that biodiversity loss was reduced by an average 29% per country.

Dr Waldron, currently based at the National University of Singapore, said: ‘For decades, environmentalists have argued that we need to spend more on nature conservation, or face a modern mass extinction of a similar magnitude to the loss of the dinosaurs.

‘Yet governments and donors have been unwilling to come up with the budgets needed, often because there was little evidence that the money spent does any good. Our study shows global conversation spending in the past has had a major positive impact in reducing biodiversity loss today.’

The findings can also be used to estimate the budgets needed for biodiversity research and importantly, how they will change as countries develop, so that timely, preventative action can be taken.

‘Without the big increases in funding driven by the Earth Summit, we would already have lost about a third more biodiversity than we actually did. More money is still needed, but this finding should now encourage decision makers to re-engage with the Earth Summit’s positive vision, and adequately bankroll the protection of earth’s biodiversity today,’ explained co-author, Dr David Redding (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine).

‘We specifically looked at the bird and mammal species found in each country, to determine if the species that lived there changed either to be more threatened or less threatened according to the IUCN Red List scale. In the vast majority of cases, the trend was towards being more threatened, representing an overall decline in biodiversity. We added up the declines across all species found in each country and compared these values to that country’s spend on conservation,’ added Dr Redding.

The models used by the researchers allow the changes to be predicted with high accuracy by combining the positive impact of conservation investment with the negative impact of economic, agricultural and population growth. Importantly, they found that as human development pressures grow, funding may need to be increased over time.

Dr Waldron said: ‘A highly accurate predictive model of biodiversity decline shows, specifically, how different levels of economic development and agricultural expansion require different levels of conservation spending, to counterbalance any negative effects. Such smart allocation of scarce financial resources would support true sustainable development, as called for by the UN.’