Biopiracy and Biodiversity Conservation

by Mariah Tso

Biodiversity conservation is a global problem, particularly with respect to data availability and access, and the lack of it is being exacerbated by climate change. At the global scale, key barriers to the collection and compilation of biodiversity information have yet to be identified. Tatsuya Amano and William J. Sutherland (2013) identify and discuss how wealth, language, geographical location, and security explain various spatial variations in data availability in four different types of biodiversity databases. The authors found that countries with high numbers of biodiversity records are also high in per capita gross domestic product (GDP), proportion of English speakers, security levels, and are located close to the country hosting the database. However these countries with better records don’t necessarily have high biodiversity. The authors claim that these factors affect data availability by hindering scientific research activities and/or international communications and have caused an under collection of biodiversity data from biodiversity-rich countries. They conclude that efforts to overcome these barriers should focus on scientific education, communication, research, and collaboration in low-GDP countries with fewer English speakers that are located far from… western countries that host the global databases.

Previous studies examining barriers to collection of biodiversity data, focused predominantly on the wealth of county as a driver of spatial biases. This study identifies multiple barriers and quantifies their relative impact on collection and compilation of biodiversity information at a global scale. In addition to country wealth, measured in GDP, the authors examined language (number of English speakers), security, and geographical location (proximity to database). The authors analyzed four databases. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) collects and records the occurrence of organisms across the globe and contains over 3 hundred million. The Global Population Dynamics Database (GPDD) holds the largest collection of time series population data in the world (nearly 5,000 records). Movebank is another global data archive for animal movement data, and the European Union for Bird Ranging Databank (EDB) compiled bird ringing recovery data throughout Europe. Bird species richness is highly correlated with both mammal and amphibian richness, so it can serve as a proxy for these as well. These sources were chosen to represent different types of information related to biodiversity conservation (distribution, population dynamics, behavior, and demographic parameters) and were not intended to be exhaustive. The authors didn’t use other databases provided only distribution range of species by country or region and not actual observation records. Also unevenness of data availability among the selected databases were viewed as a reflection of the information bias among different types of biodiversity information rather than a drawback to the study.

In order to quantify how much each factor contributed to explaining spatial biases in data availability, the authors performed hierarchical partitioning. They chose to use number of records per kilometer rather than the number of records in each country, based on the assumption that all else being equal, more records should be collected in larger countries for effective conservation across the country. GDP was used to measure wealth since more detailed measures of wealth, such as the amount of budget spent on conservation science, could not be obtained at the global scale. Level of security was measured using the Global Peace Index (GPI) from the Institute for Economics and Peace collected by the Economic Intelligence Unit. GPI incorporates 23 indicators under the three broad themes of the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic or international conflict, and degree of militarization. A lower GPI indicated higher ‘peacefulness’. The number of English speakers was estimated using four different sources: Ethnologue, the World Factbook, the Cambridge encyclopedia of Language, and the Eurobarometer survey.

Results indicated that both GDP per capita and the proportion of English speakers were positively correlated with the number of records per square kilometer while the distance from the host organizations and GPI generally showed a negative effect. The authors suggest that potential barriers to biodiversity collection in poorer countries are lack of adequate infrastructure, insufficient expertise, inaccessibility to research sites due to political upheaval, and difficulties in getting data published or made public. However GDP still left 76-84 percent of among-country variation unexplained, which can be explained by the other three factors. The positive correlation with English speakers can be explained by a delay in development of biodiversity science in countries with fewer English speakers, and failure to collect and compile existing information in such countries. Since English now serves as the common medium for international scientific communication, low English skills can cause intellectual isolation, according to the authors. The negative impact of geographical location indicated that face-to-face communication is still critical, however the authors note that some of the data, notably those in GPDD, were collected before 1999 when internet access was still limited. The authors suggest that geographical location can be overcome by efforts to advertise databases and promote information exchange. They also noted that security was a particularly serious barrier. Low-level security discourages or forces researchers to cease their activities, affecting the amount of data collected. Additionally, political instability may effect funding for environmental science and management, causing funds to be directed elsewhere. Also warfare can destroy habitat, increase poaching and environmental pollutants, but can also create undisturbed habitats.

The authors note that one drawback of the study is that the results cannot separate the impact of these factors on the actual amount of data from the impact on the ability to collect existing information. To overcome these barriers and spatial biases in global biodiversity information, they suggest enhancing ecological education, research, and collaboration in countries that have low-GDP, fewer English speakers, and that are located far from Western countries.

Amano, T., Sutherland, W.J. 2013. Four Barriers to the Global Understanding of Biodiversity Conservation: Wealth, Language, Geographical Location and Security. Proc R Soc B 280: 20122649. Paper at:

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