"If it is possible to conserve exactly the sites you want and do it immediately - a conservation blueprint makes sense," says Andelman. "In marine environments, where there is public ownership, this may be possible, but this situation is rare on land. Conservation has to be staged over time, and it is difficult to predict when and where you will have willing sellers."
"For the last 20 years we thought we needed to be more systematic and we became really good at identifying priority areas for protection without taking into account opportunities in the real world - the rise and fall of property values and who might be influenced to sell," says coauthor Hugh Possingham of Queensland University, a leading conservation biologist and mathematician. "We've taken a passive theoretical approach instead of getting out there and actively seizing opportunities."
The scientists now call for a new approach to conservation - one designed more like a dynamic business plan than a static scientific assessment. Their study provides a new framework for estimating the benefits of paying a premium to acquire important sites for biodiversity and emphasizes the importance of being opportunistic and acting fast.
"This approach would allow conservation agencies to move quickly and effectively to protect habitat," says Possingham. "Redirecting funds could help managers offer financial or other incentives to land owners, helping turn years of planning into actual protection for species that are running out of time."
The authors state that their results do not diminish the need for accurate information on the distribution of plants and animals and the activities that threaten their survival.
"Just like any business plan, we need the best background research we can get in this case the basic ecological data about abundance and distribution of plants and animals that is still sparse but it needs to be melded with a better understand