Key Challenges within Biodiversity Mapping

Despite important advances in biodiversity mapping, there remains a variety of critical debates surrounding biodiversity mapping approaches. A key issue is the challenge of collecting and combining appropriate data with which to make conservation decisions. A lack of appropriate data has led to questions over the validity of results, particularly in the contexts of developing countries and the biodiverse tropical regions where data are especially sparse or poor. Even where data are relatively abundant, decisions must still be made over which measures to select to estimate regional biodiversity. There is a great need for examination of these predictive and estimative techniques to ensure that they are effective.

Identifying valid ecological regions is a second area of controversy. For instance, aerial photographs are often used to characterize vegetation types and yet identification of different plant communities via remote sensing is never completely accurate. Additionally, fuzzy boundaries make identifying the spatial extent of communities highly contentious. Even if vegetation can be successfully identified, there remains considerable doubt over the degree to which this is an effective proxy for that region's animal communities, again challenging the validity of the ecoregion that has been identified. For instance, large predators commonly cross different vegetation communities, while other species may have far more specialized ranges or needs than can be delineated by a vegetation proxy.

Another critical point of controversy is the scale at which biodiversity mapping should be undertaken. A central scientific question is whether species level, habitat level, or landscape level conservation is most effective. With the advent of biodiversity mapping, many conservation programs have looked increasingly toward regional and global scale approaches, which have become feasible with recent technology and data availability. However, most conservation decisions are made at national or local scales, and so it is questionable how effective these data are for facilitating decisionmaking. Additionally, biodiversity mapping has been challenged for potentially missing considerable detail because of its coarse scale of analysis. In this sense, it is often argued that biodiversity mapping should not replace traditional approaches to species or landscape conservation, but should be employed as a complementary technique.

Finally, biodiversity mapping has also become embroiled in political debate. The quantitative, scientific nature of biodiversity mapping is often criticized for neglecting to consider broader political issues, particularly the feasibility or likelihood of success of an area's protection. In other words, biodiversity mapping can certainly point us toward worthy targets for conservation, but further work must go into assessing the likelihood of persistence of protection of that area, considering political and economic factors. Political considerations are also brought to the fore in the context of intellectual property. Biodiversity now has recognized commercial value and as a consequence many countries have become wary of sharing information on biological resources. Much biodiversity is concentrated in the Global South (and in many cases also on indigenous lands), while information on it is concentrated in the affluent North. Biodiversity mapping has therefore been criticized for encouraging flows of intellectual property to affluent industrialized countries. On the other hand, some have suggested that mapping technologies may hold the potential to democratize conservation activities by giving local communities the tools to manage their own resources more effectively. Whichever the case, it is clear that biodiversity mapping is not only a scientific, but also a political, endeavor.