Despite the efforts of conservation scientists worldwide, much conservation today is based on belief systems, rather than empirical evidence of the impact of alternative conservation strategies (but see Wiik et al. 2019 for exciting new research using randomised control trials). Two of the most widespread belief systems in conservation are the contrasting beliefs that we should prioritize either frontier or wilderness areas. Those that advocate a frontier conservation approach (e.g. biodiversity hot spots) argue that the most vulnerable habitats, containing species facing imminent extinction, should receive immediate attention. Those advocating a wilderness approach (e.g. Watson et al. 2018) argue that conservation should be focused on more pristine areas that might become threatened in the more distant future.

In our new paper, published in Conservation Letters, we show that the benefits of frontier versus wilderness conservation are highly circumstantial. The most effective strategy will depend highly upon the costs of conservation action, spatial patterns of biodiversity, rates of biodiversity recovery after protection, and rates of change in threats over time. Because each of these factors is likely to vary greatly between conservation landscapes, so too will the impact of frontier and wilderness conservation strategies. For example, marine areas might have significantly greater recovery potential than terrestrial areas, because of the greater dispersal and recolonisation abilities of marine species. As a result, highly degraded frontier areas might represent better conservation opportunities in marine ecosystems.

Importantly, our research shows that failure to consider any of the factors we mention above will likely lead to sub-optimal, highly residual conservation. Conservation that focuses on highly threatened frontier areas, but fails to consider conservation costs (e.g. costs to acquire land, or opportunity costs to stakeholders) could produce conservation plans that are highly cost-inefficient. Similarly, conservation that focuses on high biodiversity wilderness areas, but fails to consider the time frames within which these areas are likely to become threatened, could lead to low-impact conservation.

The take home message is: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to threat prioritisation in conservation – both frontier and and wilderness conservation can be optimal under different circumstances, and in many cases a combination of both strategies is most effective.

To explore how different factors affect frontier and wilderness conservation priorities we have developed an online interactive model (full version available at, where the relative benefits of each strategy can be visualised. Below we have embedded a simplified version of this model to explore different scenarios.

Full citation: Sacre E, Bode M, Weeks R, Pressey RL. The context-dependence of frontier versus wilderness conservation priorities. Conservation Letters. 2019;e12632.


Watson, J.E.M., Venter, O., Lee, J., Jones, K.R., Robinson, J.G., Possingham, H.P. & Allan, J.R. (2018). Protect the last of the wild. Nature, 563, 27.

Wiik, E., d’Annunzio, R., Pynegar, E., Crespo, D., Asquith, N. & Jones, J.P.G. (2019). Experimental evaluation of the impact of a payment for environmental services program on deforestation. Conservation Science and Practice, e8.

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