Our planet faces many serious environmental problems, among them global climate change, pollution, soilerosion, and toxic waste disposal. At Conservation International (CI), we believe that there is one problemthat surpasses all others in terms of importance because of its irreversibility, the extinction of biologicaldiversity. Conservation efforts still receive only a tiny fraction of the resources, both human and financial,needed to get the job done. As a result of this, we must use available resources efficiently, applying them tothose places with the highest concentrations of diversity which are at most immediate risk of disappearing.CI uses a strategic, hierarchical approach for setting conservation investment priorities. At a globallevel, we have targeted the “hotspots,” 15 tropical areas that hold a third or more of all terrestrial diversityand are at great risk. Our global priorities also focus on major tropical wilderness areas and the “mega-diversity” country concept, which highlights the importance of the national entities that harbor highbiodiversity. We are now undertaking a series of priority-setting exercises for other major categoriesof ecosystems, among them marine systems, deserts, and dry forests.The next level of priority setting is the bioregional workshop, a process where experts assemble theircombined knowledge of an area to map regional conservation priorities using CI’s geographic informationsystem (CISIG). We have also taken a taxon-based approach, working with the Species Survival Commissionof IUCN to produce action plans for key groups of organisms.These priority-setting exercises provide the scientific underpinning for urgent conservationdecisions in hotspot regions. Although the hotspots we have identified occupy less than 3-4 percent of theland surface of the planet, they still cover several million square kilometers, only small areas of which havebeen properly inventoried. To fill the gaps in our regional knowledge, CI created the Rapid AssessmentProgram (RAP) in 1989.RAP assembles teams of world-renowned experts and host country scientists to generate first-cutassessments of the biological value of poorly known areas. An area’s importance can be characterized by itstotal biodiversity, its degree of endemism, the uniqueness of an ecosystem, and the degree of risk of extinction. As a conservation tool, RAP precedes long-term scientific inventory.When satellite images of an area targeted for a RAP assessment are available, the team consultsthem prior to a trip to determine the extent of forest cover and likely areas for exploration. Once in-country,the scientists make overflights in small planes or helicopters to identify forest types and points for fieldtransects. Ground travel often requires a combination of vehicles, boats, pack animals, and foot travel to getthe team to remote sites where few, if any, roads exist. Trips last from two to eight weeks.On each trip, in-country scientists form a central part of the team. Local experts are especiallycritical to understanding areas where little exploration has been undertaken. Subsequent research andprotection of habitats following a RAP trip depends on the initiatives of local scientists and conservationists.The RAP concept was born during a field trip by Murray Gell-Mann of the MacArthur Foundation,Spencer Beebe, one of CI’s founders, and Ted Parker, former leader of the RAP team. RAP was foundedwith funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s World Resources and Environ-ment Program, headed by Dan Martin.RAP reports are available to the host governments of the countries being surveyed and to allinterested conservationists, scientists, institutions, and organizations. We hope that these reports willcatalyze effective conservation action on behalf of our planet’s biological diversity, the legacy of life that isso critical to us all.
Russell A. Mittermeier
Conservation Priorities: The Role of RAP
Director, Conservation Biology