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New publication: Ecosystem indices to support global biodiversity conservation

RLE team develop ecosystem indices using data from RLE assessments

Stopping declines and restoring nature is a fundamental goal of global biodiversity agreements, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Biodiversity indicators measure our progress in achieving these targets, show impacts of policies, and guide management actions. 

While current indicators monitor changes to species, available ecosystem indicators do not capture the diversity of the world’s ecosystems. Sustaining ecosystems is key to a healthy planet – it is vital for safeguarding biodiversity and the natural capital and ecosystem services that people rely on. Indicators capturing changes in ecosystem risk, size and health are needed to inform conservation action. The lack of ecosystem indicators limits our ability to make informed decisions about conservation and sustainable resource use.

Members of the Red List of Ecosystems Thematic Group, led by Jessica Rowland (Deakin University), have developed a set of three indices as biodiversity indicators for ecosystems. The indices (Fig. 1) make use of the wealth of data from the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. They aggregate data on ecosystems to reveal trends in past and likely future changes across marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems: 

  1. Red List Index of Ecosystems  summarises the status and trends in the risk of ecosystem collapse
  2. Ecosystem Area Index measures change in ecosystem extent
  3. Ecosystem Health Index  measures ecosystem degradation from changes in ecological processes and functions of both the biological and physical components of ecosystems


Fig. 1. Ecosystem indices range and interpretation.

In the paper recently published in Conservation Letters, the team analysed three case studies to show the capabilities of the indices. These were based on national Red List of Ecosystems assessments for Colombia and South Africa, and continental-scale assessments of American and Caribbean forests. These case studies revealed spatial patterns of high risk and degradation (see the indices for Colombia in Fig. 2) and provides insights into the potential of alternative conservation actions to reduce risks, such as protection and restoration.



Fig. 2.  Ecosystem indices for Colombia based on the national RLE assessments.

Potential applications

The case studies showed the indices’ capacity to reveal important patterns for users across sectors by informing conservation targets, guiding policy, and prioritising management actions. For example, the ecosystem indices suitable for:

  • Monitoring progress towards agreed targets under International conventions and global assessments
  • Synthesising the status of biodiversity
  • Guiding government conservation priorities and planning, measuring effectiveness of policy decisions, and reporting progress towards international commitments
  • Planning for biodiversity offsetting and measuring impacts of decisions in the private/financial sectors
  • Guide NGO conservation priority setting, allocate resources and evaluate the impact of investments

Ecosystems form the backbone of the global conservation agenda. Indicators capable of measuring changes across all types of ecosystems are a necessity. The new indices build on the rapidly growing information based from the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems to provide much needed insights into on changes in the risk, size and health of ecosystems.


Written by: Jessica Rowland

Style and format: Jessica Rowland


Provita Nov 27, 2019


IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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