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New atlas reveals climate-critical rangelands cover half the world’s land surface, supporting millions of people and critical ecosystems - yet often ignored despite threats

26 MAY 2021 – A new atlas published today shows that 54 per cent of the world’s land surface consists of vast  tracts of land covered by grass, shrubs or sparse, hardy vegetation that support millions of pastoralists, hunter  gatherers, ranchers and large populations of wildlife--and store large amounts of carbon.

Yet while most climate  plans focus on forests, much less importance is given to rangelands, leaving this massive planetary ecosystems  supporting people and nature exposed to a wide variety of threats.

This is among the key conclusions of the new Rangelands Atlas—an ambitious, first of its kind inventory compiled  by a coalition of prominent international environmental, conservation and agricultural organisations cataloguing  the contemporary character of the world’s rangelands, which include the Mongolian steppe, the savannas of  Africa, the pampas of South America and the Great Plains of North America. Their goal is to make rangelands a prominent part of policy discussions around everything from confronting  climate change to reducing poverty, managing threats to biodiversity and freshwater, and developing sustainable  food systems.

  • For the first time ever, we have an accurate understanding of how much of our planet’s land is covered by  rangelands. So far, conservation and development efforts have focused mostly on forests – we now know that  rangelands should also receive increased attention,” said Shirley Tarawali, assistant director general of the  International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which collaborated on the Rangeland Atlas.

The Rangelands Atlas helps to fill that void and will be regularly updated. It captures key elements of the  importance of rangelands, a large portion of which are dry, desert-like areas, for supporting people, wildlife and  vegetation. For example, 70 per cent of Mongolia is rangelands. In Chad, grazing livestock across remote tracts  of parched rangelands accounts for 11 per cent of GDP. The Northern Great Plains in the United States are one of the world’s four remaining intact temperate grasslands, supporting a menagerie of plants, birds and reptile  species and providing home to several Native American nations. But the atlas reveals that due to threats,  including large-scale industrial agriculture, these lands are being lost at a faster rate than the destruction of the  Amazon rainforest.  

  • To date, 12 per cent of rangelands are designated as protected areas. Much of the rest is threatened from  escalating conversion, particularly for croplands.

The atlas shows that in the past three centuries more than 60  per cent of wildlands and woodlands have been converted – an area larger than North America - and an area  approximately the size of Australia (7.45 million km2) is now used to produce crops. This land-use change  contributes to the climate crisis, but the atlas shows rangelands will also suffer from global warming. Drastic  effects are predicated in an area twice the size of Europe, with nature being dangerously destabilized and the  ability to produce food, fuel and fibre being reduced. 

The Atlas includes a series of 16 sets of maps demonstrating how much of rangelands is key biodiversity or protected area, where threatened species are located, and what climate change impacts are predicted over the coming years. This is first of its kind of data.

  • The maps show African countries that are at risk from climate change and where urgent action is required. Rangelands have rarely featured on international agendas. Just 10 per cent of national climate plans (as part of the Paris Climate Agreement) include references to rangelands; comparatively 70 per cent include references to forests.
  • Although rangelands are known to play a key role in storing carbon, providing habitat for diverse wildlife and nature, and supporting the world’s largest rivers and wetlands, part of the reason they have been undervalued is the lack of definitive data on their extent and value.
  • 54% per cent of the world’s terrestrial surface consists of rangelands, which are home to some of the earth’s most precious habitats and support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.
  • This new data can equip policymakers to better manage rangelands, with major benefits for pastoralists, nature, and climate.
  • How rangeland restoration and improvement of data on rangelands must be made priorities in UN conventions and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, if drylands and dryland communities are to strengthen their resilience to climate change and other stresses and shocks,  will be discussed at the GLF Drylands Forum on 2-3 June 2021.

In the second half of 2021, government leaders will participate in annual conferences for the three Rio  Conventions, on climate change (UNFCCC), biodiversity (UNCBD) and desertification (UNCCD), along with the first  ever UN Food Systems Summit. Published ahead of the 5 June launch of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration,  the atlas can help guide governments, international organisations, NGOs and donors on restoring, protecting and  better managing rangelands.

The Rangelands Atlas consists of preliminary maps that are a starting point for gathering more detailed data on  the exact ecosystem services and economic and social benefits that rangelands deliver to people and nature. It  is available at www.rangelandsdata.org/atlas.

This mapping of rangelands was produced by focusing on seven of the 14 global biomes categorised by WWF in their mapping of terrestrial  ecoregions around the world.  This map of rangelands is combined with other existing global datasets on different themes, to produce a mapping of  that  data “for rangelands.”

Each entry is presented with a short explanation of the map, key figures produced from the big data that produced the map, and a story from the field. We are reliant on the accuracy of the datasets we have accessed: the data have not been verified at regional, country or local level, and therefore is only an indicator of broad and estimated figures and trends.

DID YOU KNOW:

Key Figures

  1. Rangelands cover 54% of global terrestrial surface (148,326,000 km2) to a total of 79,509,421 km2.
  2. The largest rangeland biome is deserts and xeric shrublands covering 27,984,645 km2 or 19% of global terrestrial surface.
  3. Rangelands are made up of seven biomes or rangeland types namely: 35% deserts and xeric shrublands, 1% flooded grasslands and savannas, 4% mediterranean forests, woodlands and scrub, 6% montane grasslands and shrublands, 13% temperate grasslands, savannas and shrublands, 26% tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas and shrublands, and 15% tundra.

Though the maps are global in nature and hide changes taking place at the local level, the Atlas is a useful starting point for drawing attention to rangelands and the need for their protection and restoration.

  1. Distribution of rangeland types globally
  2. Dryland types found in rangelands globally
  3. Forest cover, gain and loss in rangelands
  4. Types of ruminant production systems found in rangelands globally
  5. Changes in anthropogenic biomes found in rangelands globally between 1700 and 2000
  6. Terrestrial protected areas found in rangelands globally
  7. Key biodiversity areas (KBAs) in rangelands globally
  8. Numbers of threatened vertebrates in rangelands globally
  9. Land productivity in rangelands between 2001-2015
  10. Changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) over the period 2001-2015 in rangelands
  11. Progress towards land degradation neutrality (LDN) over the period 2001-2015 found in rangelands
  12. Predicted changes in variation of annual rainfall, length of growing period, and temperature by 2050
  13. Rangelands affected by three climate thresholds
  14. Three climate change thresholds found rangelands
  15. Changes in land cover over the period 2001-2015 in rangelands
  16. Grassland types found in rangelands globally

Case studies: These case studies illustrate how changes taking place in rangelands impact local communities, their livestock and their land and natural resources. They also illustrate how pastoralists, organisations and others are working to protect rangelands and the wildlife that depends on them, whilst also strengthening livelihoods that depend on rangelands and the extensive livestock system that rangelands support.  

  1. Adapting to climate change in the Italian Alps
  2. Reinstating the Hima in Bani Hashem, Jordan, to build resilience to climate change
  3. Adapting to climate change in Australia’s rangelands
  4. Contributing to land degradation neutrality (LDN) in the Brazillian cerrado
  5. Supporting conservation agriculture to improve soil organic carbon in the Silowana complex, Zambia
  6. Reversing land degradation in Ait Ben Yacoub, Morocco
  7. Changes in productivity of rangelands and pasture conditions in Kyrgyzstan
  8. Partnerships to protect threatened animal species in the lowland Terai of Nepal
  9. The contribution of key biodiversity areas (KBAs) to the protection of rangelands in China
  10. Indigenous peoples right vs. nature conservation? Pastoralism within the Reisa national park
  11. Resolving conflicts over land use in rangelands through joint village land use planning
  12. Combining improvements in the livestock production system with rangeland management and rehabilitation: the case of Medenine in Tunisia
  13. An agrosilvopastoral system in southern Spain – the case of the “dehesa”
  14. Keeping the grasslands of the northern great plains healthy
  15. Making a living in the drylands of Chad
  16. Reversing rangeland degradation through collective participatory rangeland management in Mongolia

The diversity and importance of rangeland environments is mirrored in the diversity and prestige of the report’s  authors. In addition to ILRI, they include the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wide  Fund for Nature, UN Environment Programme and the International Land Coalition, with contributions from the  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

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