Where conservation efforts and conservation collide? The tension between tackling immediate and long-term threats

In a recent opinion piece in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, entitled Integrating Proximal and Horizon Threats to Biodiversity for Conservation (Bonebrake et al., 2019), the authors propose a rather new way of addressing conservation efforts. Their main argument rests in the assertion that there is no such thing as a ‘major’ threat to biodiversity, but that conservation efforts should be directed towards immediate threats and, as the author call it, ‘horizon threats’.

The differentiation between the two categories is rather simple: while immediate threats are those threats immediately impacting biodiversity (e.g. habitat loss, overexploitation or pollution), horizon threats are of a larger scale, both in geographic and temporal terms. Climate change is the most obvious in this regard. In this sense, climate change is not a threat which we can directly link with immediate impacts on the environment, but its effects will be felt in the long term and on a much larger geographical scale.

When conservation efforts are being implemented, the authors argue, conservation efforts effectively counteract each other, because immediate and long-term threats need different efforts, implemented by different actors. In light of the chronic shortage of funding, a strategic realignment of conservation efforts would be necessary. At present, conservation strategies are too scattered, blocking each other in their success.

A ideal conservation strategy would see a coordinated effort that addresses different threats at different levels., focusing on strategies with the best outcome (‘win-win outcomes’). Their figure “Space–Time Templet to Identify Proximal and Horizon Threats to Biodiversity”, which I have crudely adapted for this blog, provides a visual impression of their approach.

Space–Time Templet to Identify Proximal and Horizon Threats to Biodiversity, Figure adapted from Bonebrake et al 2019, p 2.

The quintessence of the article therefore breaks with the notion of single-threat-based conservation efforts and would require a strategic restructuring of international conservation law and international conservation bodies,. From a legal perspective, this would certainly be interesting in as much this would challenge the legitimacy of bodies such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). After all, these international bodies deal with single (or limited) threats to species, i.e. overexploitation and trade, but are tackled on an international scale. More importantly, in both bodies the local dimension, local use and local conservation strategies are not well addressed.

If the model proposed by Bonebrake et al. were to be applied, this would raise the question to what degree the international community were to do away with ‘old’ institutions such as the IWC or CITES. Would their institutional set-up still be timely and outcome-based? Particularly threats to marine mammals, which take a special role in the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) would need to be addressed from a legal perspective. After all, UNCLOS requires states to cooperate in the conservation and management of marine mammals, not only in the Exclusive Economic Zones, but also in the high seas.

I cannot answer the question of how the model proposed could be implemented in practice. Yet, the idea proposed sounds very reasonable and considers local stakeholders as important contributors to ‘win-win’ conservation outcomes. I think it is therefore necessary to raise the issue of multidimensional, threat-based conservation efforts, which would include re-channeling of funding, in international conservation bodies.

From a very practical perspective, current conservation outcomes are limited, at best. As we have recently been made aware by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), of the estimated 8.7 million species of flora and fauna, around 1 million are in decline. Bodies such as the IWC and CITES face heated stand-offs between different parties concerning the ways specific species are to be used (or not). In order to develop new ways, Bonebrake et al. have provided us with a new systemic idea to tackle biodiversity loss and to rearrange conservation efforts.


Bonebrake TC, F Guo, C Dingle, DM Baker, RL Kitching & LA Ashton (2019) Integrating Proximal and Horizon Threats to Biodiversity for Conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.04.001

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