Performance of sub-Saharan vertebrates as indicator groups for identifying priority areas for conservation

The aim of continental and global identification of priority areas for conservation is to identify particularly valuable areas for conservation on which to focus more-detailed effort. Often, these sets of important areas, referred to as priority sets, have been identified through use of data on a single taxon (e.g., birds), which is assumed to act as an indicator for all biodiversity. Using a database of the distributions of 3882 vertebrate species in sub-Saharan Africa, we conducted one of very few large-scale tests of this assumption. We used six potential indicator groups-birds, mammals, amphibians, snakes, threatened birds, and threatened mammals-to find priority sets of 200 areas that best represent the species in that group. Priority sets of grid cells designed to maximize representation of a single indicator group captured 83-93% of species in the other groups. This high degree of representation is consistent with observed high levels of overlap in the patterns of distribution of species in different groups. Those species of highest conservation interest were more poorly represented, however, with only 75-88% of other groups' threatened species and 63-76% of other groups' narrow-range species represented in the priority sets. We conclude that existing priority sets based on indicator groups provide a pragmatic basis for the immediate assessment of priorities for conservation at a continental scale. However, complete and efficient representation-especially of narrow-range species-will not be achieved through indicator groups alone. Therefore, priority-setting procedures must remain flexible so that new areas important for other taxa can be incorporated as data become available.