The importance of realistic dispersal models in conservation planning: application of a novel modelling platform to evaluate management scenarios in an Afrotropical biodiversity hotspot.
As biodiversity hotspots are often characterized by high human population densities, implementation of conservation management practices that focus only on the protection and enlargement of pristine habitats is potentially unrealistic. An alternative approach to curb species extinction risk involves improving connectivity among existing habitat patches. However, evaluation of spatially explicit management strategies is challenging, as predictive models must account for the process of dispersal, which is difficult in terms of both empirical data collection and modelling. Here, we use a novel, individual-based modelling platform that couples demographic and mechanistic dispersal models to evaluate the effectiveness of realistic management scenarios tailored to conserve forest birds in a highly fragmented biodiversity hotspot. Scenario performance is evaluated based on the spatial population dynamics of a well-studied forest bird species. The largest population increase was predicted to occur under scenarios increasing habitat area. However, the effectiveness was sensitive to spatial planning. Compared to adding one large patch to the habitat network, adding several small patches yielded mixed benefits: although overall population sizes increased, specific newly created patches acted as dispersal sinks, which compromised population persistence in some existing patches. Increasing matrix connectivity by the creation of stepping stones is likely to result in enhanced dispersal success and occupancy of smaller patches. Synthesis and applications. We show that the effectiveness of spatial management is strongly driven by patterns of individual dispersal across landscapes. For species conservation planning, we advocate the use of models that incorporate adequate realism in demography and, particularly, in dispersal behaviours.