How data can protect wildlife

UN Development Programme
5 min readJul 26, 2019
Belize is one of the 18 range countries of the threatened jaguar. ©Enrique Aguirre/

In Southern Belize, you can walk through Central America’s last unbroken stretch of broadleaf forest. This key link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which acts as a natural land bridge between North and South America, hosts one of the world’s richest assemblages of biodiversity. While the majestic jaguar, the towering mahogany tree, and the iconic keel-billed toucan all call the forest home, it also sustains Belize’s people by providing water and livelihoods. Belize’s government is working to protect this biodiversity hotspot and many others through an extensive network of 103 protected areas that cover 36 percent of the country.

Despite this action, as in many parts of the world, forests are being cleared around these protected areas, which poses a major threat to the animals and people that depend on them. Yet, high-resolution, near real-time satellite imagery and scientific analyses are helping the government identify the locations where animals most need this forest for food and shelter, how they are moving through it, and which parts of it have the greatest risk of being cut or burned by humans. With this knowledge, conservationists are then taking more effective action. In Belize, this type of spatial data — which gathers geographic information — is helping the government advocate for additional land protection, such as their recent purchase of 12,000 hectares to help maintain connectivity in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This will help ensure that the animals in the broadleaf forest will have the land and water they need to survive.

Keel-billed toucans, Belize; howler monkey in a UNDP supported baboon sanctuary, Belize. ©UNDP/Lei Katof

A year ago, UNDP launched the UN Biodiversity Lab in partnership with UN Environment and the UN Biodiversity Convention to support nearly 140 countries to use spatial data to better deliver on their global commitments to biodiversity and sustainable development. The UN Biodiversity Lab enables policymakers to access over 100 global spatial datasets on biodiversity, protected areas, sustainable development, and human pressure in a Geographic Information Systems-free platform. This means that someone without advanced technical training can view and analyze these data, as well as communicate the results to other policymakers through story maps and dashboards. Through grants from the UNDP Innovation Facility, funded by the Government of Denmark, and the Global Environment Facility, we are working towards the ambitious goal of enhancing spatial literacy to the improve transparency and accountability of actions that deliver on the UN Biodiversity Convention and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve in Belize, supported by UNDP. ©UNDP/Lei Katof

Parties to the UN Biodiversity Convention are required to submit periodic reports on the status of biodiversity in their country, as well as the effectiveness of national strategies and actions to conserve it. We challenged these countries to double the number of maps in their national reports. Did governments deliver on this challenge? Our initial analysis indicates a resounding ‘yes’. We analyzed the 77 national reports submitted to the UN Biodiversity Convention as of early June and found that the number of maps doubled. The number of maps triples among countries supported by UNDP during this process. Thirty percent of those countries used UN Biodiversity Lab to produce at least one of their maps. These trends are expected to increase as more reports are submitted.

Countries are using spatial data in diverse ways. In Costa Rica, a country that accounts for .03 percent of the earth’s surface but six percent of its biodiversity, pineapple production generates US$1 billion annually. To counter land conversion, UNDP Costa Rica is using a spatial monitoring system to take legal action against pineapple farmers involved in illegal deforestation. The Haitian government, which has increased the country’s protected areas by 800 percent since 2010, is using the UN Biodiversity Lab to identify new protected areas and improve the management of existing ones. In Viet Nam, the government is using the UN Biodiversity Lab to create 55 maps on the status of forests, protected areas, mangroves, and coral reefs.

Pygmy Slow Loris; Papilio protenor, Cuc Phuong National Park in Viet Nam ©Cuc Phuong National Park

Across the governments UNDP works with, we hear a common need for tools that can help to identify and prioritize actions to protect, restore, or sustainably use nature in way that delivers on national commitments to the UN Biodiversity Convention, as well as the UN Climate Convention and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Governments also request support to enable dialogue among ministries to help achieve these goals. As we look towards 2020, and when the world will agree on a new international policy framework for biodiversity, UNDP will continue to build relationships, enhance the work of the UN Biodiversity Lab, and provide direct support to ensure that policymakers can use spatial data to take more effective actions.

The Euphrates soft shell tortoise found in Iraq is on the IUCN list of threatened species. ©Omar Shaikhli

Anne Virnig is Co-ordinator, UN Biodiversity Lab, UNDP.

Christina Supples is Senior Technical Advisor, Sixth National Reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity, UNDP.

The authors would like to acknowledge the team members leading the analyses of Sixth National Reports to the UN Biodiversity Convention: Martin Cadena (UNDP), Marion Marigo (UNDP), and Prudence Raine (UNDP).