Applications in GIS for Conservation Planning

The use of geographic information systems is valuable for conservation of species and their habitat due to several inherent spatial factors related to conservation such as forest cover, species distribution and land cover change.  There are many factors to consider when delineating protected areas and conserving species and this requires expertise from diverse backgrounds as well as opinions from local communities [1]. GIS simplifies the process of integrating expert and stakeholder opinion by using means such as multi-criteria decision making and pairwise comparison to assign different weights to factors of relevance. The relative importance of various criteria can be weighted to ensure the optimal space is selected for the focus of conservation efforts [2].  Figure A shows an example of a map produced using expert pairwise comparison to delineate the highest quality forests for the expansion of protected areas by the Finnish Forest and Park Service.


A map of Southern Finland showing the priority rank for the highest quality forest for new protected areas. Exisiting protected areas are shown in black.
Source: Lehtomaki et al., 2009.

In addition to integrating opinions, GIS also offers integrative technology for conservation planning for developers. A good example is the Smart Infrastructure Planner (SIP) toolkit developed by the WWF. This application is open source and can be downloaded as a GIS toolbox that can assess the impacts of a development on a particular species or habitat type. Inputs include items such as work site, roads, towns, land cover, prey distribution and water sources. These items are all integrated into one analysis (See fig. B below).

Figure B.


Habitat suitability is one of the Modules of SIP. The above fields are taken into consideration when generating a habitat suitability map (See also Fig. C).
Source: WWF, 2012.

All factors can be weighted based on their influence in determining the presence of a species. Next, any of the five modules of SIP can be run which include habitat suitability which is shown above (see also fig C), habitat suitability change (fig. D), landscape statistics, patch statistics and patch distance. The output maps can be shown through different time steps to show how developments will impacts habitat over time in response to various factors. This application also provides the user with mitigation recommendations based on the type of infrastructure being proposed and its location in the landscape [3].

Figure C.

An example of an output map from the habitat suitability module. Run this analysis twice to get current habitat suitability and predicted future suitability with consideration of new developments. Source: WWF, 2012.

Figure D.


An example of the output from the habitat suitability change analysis. Run this module with the outputs from the habitat suitability module to show areas of change over a given time period. Source: WWF, 2012.

The tool described above provides a comprehensive and organized way to visualize impacts to habitat from development. It has the potential to be very useful for cumulative impact assessment, as it has the ability to integrate the entire landscape and include all projects and infrastructure. However, when using SIP as well as pairwise comparison and multi-criteria analysis for conservation, stakeholders and experts must be careful to consider all aspects of the landscape in question. Often, “charismatic mega-fauna” such as primates, large cats or other large mammals are the focus of conservation efforts because they draw more attention and are more visible to the public [4]. If more well known species end up the sole focus of multi-criteria analysis and/or SIP analysis, less popular species, such as insects or plants, may suffer. If these tools are used with proper consideration of ecosystem components, they can be very useful for impact prediction.


[1] Mitchell, N, and Schaab, G 2008 Developing a disturbance index for five East African forests using GIS to analyse historical forest use as an important driver of current land use/cover African Journal of Ecology46(4), 572-584

[2] Lehtomäki, J, Tomppo, E, Kuokkanen, P, Hanski, I, and Moilanen, A 2009 Applying spatial conservation prioritization software and high-resolution GIS data to a national-scale study in forest conservation. Forest ecology and management258(11), 2439-2449

[3] WWF. (2012) The Smart Infrastructure Planner Toolkit User Guide. Retrieved from

[4] Leader-Williams, N and Dublin, H T 2000 Charismatic megafauna as flagship species. Priorities for the conservation of mammalian diversity: has the panda had its day, 53-81


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