Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) are ‘sites contributing significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity’, in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

A global standard to identify such sites has now been adopted by the IUCN Council following extensive consultation, and includes specific criteria and quantitative thresholds focused on five aspects:

  1. Threatened biodiversity;
  2. Geographically restricted biodiversity;
  3. Ecological integrity;
  4. Biological processes; and,
  5. Irreplaceability through quantitative analysis.

Key Biodiversity Areas can be identified for all taxa as well as ecosystems in terrestrial, inland water and marine environments. Although not all KBA criteria may be relevant to all elements of biodiversity, the thresholds associated with each of the criteria are meant to be applied consistently across all taxonomic groups (other than micro-organisms) and ecosystems. Genetic diversity can also be addressed if there is enough information to assess this aspect of diversity. In Canada, we are in the process of developing a national adaptation of the KBA Standard that will also likely include designatable units (i.e. a Canadian designation that includes species, subspecies, variety or geographically or genetically distinct population that may be assessed by COSEWIC, where such units are both discrete and evolutionarily significant – see here for more information).

There are many different approaches to identifying important sites for biodiversity, but these are by and large confined to elements, such as Prime Butterfly Areas, Important Plant Areas, Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, Important Amphibian and Reptile Areas, Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (Canadian IBAs here), among others. In 2012, IUCN members requested IUCN to convene a worldwide consultative process to consolidate these into one standard for Key Biodiversity Areas. The standard, launched during the 2016 World Conservation Congress, builds on more than 40 years of experience in identifying sites for different taxonomic, ecological or thematic subsets of biodiversity, in particular Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas from BirdLife International, but also Alliance for Zero Extinction sites and several others. The KBA Standard provides an overarching common framework for harmonising these approaches and a common “currency” for site conservation. It is a system that can be applied in a consistent, repeatable way by different users over time, helping to ensure that KBA identification is objective, transparent and rigorous through application of quantitative thresholds.

Other approaches that incorporate multiple taxa, such as the hotspot approach, are often applied at much larger scales. KBAs are at the ‘site’ scale and each should be a single manageable unit, and so are very different from hotspots, ecoregions, wilderness areas and Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs) that are identified at higher scales. KBAs are also developed based only on quantitative, ecological criteria (in contrast to, for example, (EBSAs) or areas of High Conservation Value (HCVs), which can include qualitative rationales). The identification of KBAs can feed into planning processes and other designation, such as EBSAs, World Heritage Areas, Ramsar sites, etc.

Please see the article “Synergies between the key biodiversity area and systematic conservation planning approaches”. The authors point out that systematic conservation planning and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are the two most widely used approaches for identifying important sites for biodiversity, are very complementary, and provide suggestions for how to combine the two approaches.
Key Biodiversity Areas can be used to inform a broad variety of conservation approaches. See here for an end-user assessment of KBA applications. A number of uses are listed below.

(adapted from WWF Technical Paper: The relationship between Key Biodiversity Areas and other designations, 2017):

  • Informing the identification of priority sites for legal protection
  • Guiding the management of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs): Information and data on the biodiversity elements within a KBA can help inform management and sustainable use decisions for statutory designated protected areas or other site-based conservation mechanisms (e.g. private protected areas, indigenous reserves, conservation easements, etc.).
  • Supporting private sector decision making: g. risk management, informing Environmental Impact Assessments, Strategic Environmental Assessments etc. It should be noted that KBAs are not intended to be ‘no-go’ areas, although businesses will be encouraged to take special measures to reduce environmental impacts on KBAs.
  • Guiding investment: enabling donors to ensure that conservation funding is directed to the most important places for the global persistence of biodiversity. In addition, KBAs can and do inform environmental safeguards of international financing institutions as Critical Habitats or similar categories (e.g. International Finance Corporation Performance Standard 6)
  • Informing land/sea use planning: KBAs can be used in land and sea use planning at various levels as sites of high conservation value where certain types of activities such as sustainable use and conservation should be encouraged.
  • Informing extractive and other sectors: KBAs may also be integrated into legislation, regulatory mechanisms, standards or certification schemes of relevant production sectors (e.g. linear infrastructure, forestry, agriculture, and mining).
  • Providing focus for the work of international, national and local NGOs: As sites which contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity, KBAs can be a useful tool for NGO priority setting.
  • Providing additional recognition for sites that currently lack recognition from governments and others, e.g. Indigenous Peoples and community conserved areas; corridors of unprotected land providing crucial genetic exchange between protected areas, etc.
Sites identified as KBAs do not automatically have any kind of legal protection. In practice, KBAs will often be useful in informing Protected Area designations and many existing protected areas qualify as KBAs. The KBA approach offers a rigorous and quantitative way for governments, private landholders and local and indigenous communities to select sites that are most important to steward, manage in some way, or avoid during project development, in order for these areas to contribute to the global persistence of biodiversity.

It is important to reiterate that formal protection may not be appropriate or even desirable for all KBAs. KBAs could qualify as OECMs (‘Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures’ in the language of Aichi Target 11), or can be managed as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). In areas where people have lived for millennia, the stewardship and activities of Indigenous populations (including harvesting) are likely important factors in why these areas qualify as Key Biodiversity Areas today.

There is no minimum or maximum size requirement for a KBA. The size of a KBA will depend on the ecological requirements of the biodiversity elements that triggered its designation, and consideration of site “manageability”. Sites identified due to their high ecological integrity are likely to be larger on average than sites identified under other KBA criteria (such as the presence of a species at risk), as are those in the open ocean as compared with ones on land. The KBA Standard defines “site” as: “A geographical area on land and/or in water with defined ecological, physical, administrative or management boundaries that is actually or potentially manageable as a single unit (e.g., a protected area or other managed conservation unit)…”

The consultation process to develop A Global Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas was led by the IUCN WCPA-SSC Joint Task Force on Biodiversity and Protected Areas.

The KBA Partnership includes eleven of the world’s leading nature conservation organisations and is organized into multiple committees, working groups, and is coordinated through a Secretariat. Learn more here:
Detailed guidelines for the implementation of the KBA Standard are available here. The intention is for the guidelines to be revised on a regular basis by the KBA Standards and Appeals Committee in collaboration with the Technical working group

A few main steps are listed here:

  1. Biodiversity elements that may trigger a KBA are identified (e.g. a threatened ecosystem or a very large aggregation of species).
  2. A rough site is identified that captures the biodiversity elements within it.
  3. An analysis is conducted to determine whether thresholds are met for designating a KBA (e.g. is more than 5% of the endangered ecosystem type captured within the site? See here for all thresholds).
  4. Delineation occurs according to suggested guidelines, and should build off any existing conservation sites nearby.
  5. Any site proposal must undergo independent scientific review. This is followed by the official site nomination with full documentation meeting the Documentation Standards for KBAs. Sites confirmed by the KBA Secretariat to qualify as KBAs then appear on the global KBA website.

Note that all steps should be completed in consultation with relevant communities, organizations, governments and experts. When identifying multiple sites, a scoping exercise to map out potential sites based on multiple taxa and criteria is recommended.

The principal documents explaining the Key Biodiversity Areas methodology are available on the global KBA website (, e.g. the KBA Standard itself, as well as guidelines for its implementation). A concise explanation of the KBA Standard and Guidelines is available in Webinar format here:, and Canada-specific training materials will be developed soon.
The “World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas” ( includes an interactive online map of KBAs with links to documentation for each site.
The KBA identification process is a highly inclusive, consultative and bottom-up exercise. Anyone with appropriate scientific data may propose a site to qualify as a KBA, although consultation with stakeholders at the national level (both non-governmental and governmental organizations) is required at the delineation stage. Any site proposal must undergo independent scientific review. This is followed by the official site nomination with full documentation (which must meet the Documentation Standards for KBAs.) Sites confirmed by the KBA Secretariat to qualify as KBAs will then appear on the “World Database of KBAs”. It is envisioned that work within countries be coordinated by a National Coordination Group. Because Canada has a national coordination group (the Canadian KBA Coalition), nominated sites must be sent to this group to be reviewed first at the national scale and submitted to the global KBA Secretariat. South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique are among some of the other countries developing National Coordination Groups.
The Key Biodiversity Areas standard comes at an opportune time in Canada, given the federal government’s commitment to achieving Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity[1]. The “Pathway to Canada Target 1” process was launched by the federal government in 2017 to implement the terrestrial component of this target. The Pathway to Target 1 National Steering Committee, which comprises the federal, provincial and territorial agencies responsible for implementing the Pathway process, recognizes that their stated target for percentage of land protected (17%) is insufficient on its own, and that the qualitative elements of achieving this ambition, namely “areas important for biodiversity and ecosystem services,” are vital to this exercise[2].

The multi-stakeholder Pathway to Target 1 National Advisory Panel in its report in March 2018, explicitly urged the identification of global and national KBAs across Canada as foundational to meeting these qualitative components[3], and the Canadian KBA initiative directly responds to this growing awareness that identifying Key Biodiversity Areas is a crucial step towards establishing new protected areas that will be effective in conserving biodiversity. This is a huge opportunity for Canada to improve our ability to target the right places to protect our natural heritage.

A Coalition of NGOs, governments, universities and other institutions have banded together to lead the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas in Canada, mobilizing biodiversity expertise (e.g. taxonomic and ecosystem specialists), including individual scientists and scientific bodies (e.g. COSEWIC), across Canada. Members of the Canadian KBA Coalition and of the Management Committee are listed on the Canadian KBA website ( The KBA Secretariat is housed at WCS Canada and all enquiries can be directed there.
There is an important collection of existing KBA that includes many of Canada’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas ( and two Alliance of Zero Extinction sites ( While AZE sites qualify automatically as KBAs, all IBAs will be reassessed under new KBA criteria. The experience of Bird Studies Canada in identifying, delineating and stewarding IBAs will be an important foundation upon which KBAs will be developed.
The term ‘Key Biodiversity Area’ refers to sites that are identified using the global KBA Standard that contribute to the global persistence of biodiversity. However, these sites do not always capture all regional or national priorities. For example, an ecosystem may be rare or highly threatened within a country, but because they occur elsewhere, may be more common at the global scale. In this case, there may be no sites within that country that qualify as a global KBA. A national or regional adaptation of the KBA Standard will focus on species and ecosystems that trigger KBA criteria at the scale of that country or region. For example, rather than using IUCN globally red-listed species as triggers for certain criteria, in Canada, a national adaptation of the KBA Standard is being developed and tested to align with species at risk identified by COSEWIC. Any resulting national scale KBAs will be clearly identified as such.
The Canadian KBA initiative is open to everyone with an interest in identifying and delineating sites based on the KBA criteria. Please visit the Canadian KBA website ( for more details on how you can get involved, or contact the Secretariat at WCS Canada for further enquiries.

[1] Aichi Target 11 specifies that “By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape. “

[2], pg.32

[3], recommendation 13