Prioritizing areas for conservation outside the existing protected area network in Bhutan: the use of multi-species, multi-scale habitat suitability models
Penjor U., KASZTA Z., MACDONALD D., Cushman S.
Context Understanding the environmental and anthropogenic factors influencing habitat selection of multiple species is a foundation for quantifying human impacts on biodiversity and developing effective conservation measures. Objectives To determine the effect of multiple scales of environmental/topographic and anthropogenic variables and landscape patterns on habitat suitability of terrestrial mammals in Bhutan, assess the effectiveness of the current protected area network, identify areas of high species richness outside of the existing protected area, and evaluate the potential effectiveness of indicator and umbrella species for conservation planning. Methods We modelled multi-scale habitat selection of sixteen species of terrestrial mammals across Bhutan using data from a nation-wide camera trap survey. We used the predicted species distribution maps to assess the multi-species conservation effectiveness of the existing protected area network. We performed simulations to identify high priority areas for multiple species based on their habitat suitability, proximity to existing protected areas and overall connectivity within the predicted distribution of species. We used correlation analysis among predicted occurrence maps and multivariate cluster analysis to identify potential indicator species. We evaluated the potential utility of each species as umbrella species by assessing how well optimal protected areas for that species would protect suitable habitat for all 16 species simultaneously. Results Protected areas and forest cover were strongly associated with habitat use of most modelled species. Additionally, topographical features, like terrain roughness and slope position, contributed to habitat selection of multiple species, but often in different ways. Environmental and topographical variables were mostly selected at medium to broad scales. Anthropogenic variables (agriculture and built-up areas) were negatively associated with habitat suitability of most species at both fine and broad scales. Conservation effectiveness assessment of existing protected areas found protected areas in south-central Bhutan have high effectiveness in terms of both mean and total richness protected. Similarly, biological corridors in the south-central region offered high mean richness protection. Our simulation of optimal areas for additional protection found areas abutting protected areas in southern Bhutan offered high relative species richness protection. Our umbrella species analysis found muntjac, wild pig, serow, sambar and Asian golden cat are the most effective umbrella species for broader biodiversity protection. Our indicator species analysis found tiger, gaur, dhole, clouded leopard, Asian black bear and common leopard as effective indicator species. Conclusions This study highlights the need to protect optimally located species-rich areas outside the current protected areas. This kind of multi-species habitat assessment provides important information to optimize future conservation and development plans at national and regional scales.