Subnational data crucial for the global protection of mountain biodiversity

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The protection of biodiversity in mountain regions is part of the global sustainability goals. Reports at the level of entire countries are usually used to review biodiversity targets. Researchers from the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne question this analysis at country level with regard to conservation measures for mountain biodiversity, as important subnational differences are neglected and transnational conservation measures are necessary.

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Global sustainability and conservation efforts, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, require countries to provide annual progress indicators. Although sufficient data is available, these reports are usually prepared for entire countries and are not regionally differentiated. A recent study in Nature Sustainability study published by researchers from the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) from the Universities of Bern and Lausanne addresses this topic using the example of mountain regions and their biodiversity conservation. The team led by Amina Ly, PhD student at Stanford University, and Davnah Urbach, Managing Director of the GMBA, found that the degree of biodiversity conservation in the mountains (indicator 15.4.1 of the Sustainable Development Goal) can be reliably calculated at the subnational level and varies considerably between the individual mountain ranges.

"Nepenthes lowii is endemic to several isolated peaks on the island of Borneo, including Mount Mulu in Sarawak, Malaysia. The protection of these mountain areas is crucial for the survival of this species, which is categorised as "endangered" to "threatened". For the Tambao Mountains, to which this mountain belongs, the coverage of important mountain biodiversity sites by protected areas (SDG indicator 15.4.1) is estimated to be around 35 % in 2020. This coverage is significantly higher than the national 2020 average of 28.1% for Malaysia. Katja Rembold

Regional differences in protected area coverage

The team analysed the extent to which areas that are important for the survival of mountain species are covered by protected areas. They found that coverage in many countries varies greatly depending on the mountain range. In Bhutan and Switzerland, for example, coverage rates vary between 0% and 100%, which is very different from the 2020 national averages of 47% and 35%. "Decisions on where to establish protected areas and how to sustainably manage biodiversity in mountain regions are usually made at the sub-national level, i.e. in the regions. The responsible authorities need information that is relevant at this decision-making level," says Davnah Urbach.

Appropriate spatial coverage enables cross-border protection

Many mountain ranges extend across several countries. A more accurate mapping of protection at the regional level can help to better allocate responsibilities between countries and coordinate protection across borders. As far as the European Alps are concerned, Switzerland only protects around 30% of its high biodiversity mountain areas, which is less than what neighbouring countries such as Italy (around 70%) or Germany (over 95%) do. "These large differences in protection rates between countries show that more can be done to ensure equal protection," comments Davnah Urbach. To this end, the researchers have produced 1-page information sheets for individual countries and transboundary mountain systems on which key biodiversity areas are protected in mountain regions. These documents are publicly available.

Mountain regions particularly at risk

Biodiversity in mountain regions is affected by many factors, such as changes in agricultural practices, climate change and mass tourism. These mountain areas harbour an extraordinary diversity of uniquely adapted species, and the ecosystem services that mountain ecosystems provide are vital to human life. For example, species-rich vegetation stands on steep slopes prevent erosion and reduce the risk of landslides. Environmental changes in these regions can therefore have far-reaching consequences.

The current study now provides important information that will help countries with mountain regions to coordinate their conservation efforts. Markus Fischer, co-chair of the GMBA, says: "This study will greatly support the protection of mountain biodiversity. And we intend to stimulate a global discussion on how decision-making processes can be supported by meaningful indicators at the relevant levels."


The Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) is a platform for international and transdisciplinary co-operation for the assessment, conservation and sustainable use of mountain biodiversity.

More information

Dr Davnah Urbach, Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA), Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern & Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur la Montagne, Université de Lausanne © Hugo Vincent

Prof Markus Fischer, Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA), Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern © Hans Zurbuchen