By Ashley Yeager

A cheetah walks through the African desert. Credit: Martin Harvey,

Deserts get a bad rap. They seem dry and, well, deserted.

“With perceptions such as these, it’s not hard to see why deserts are neglected,” says Andrew Jacobson, coordinator of the Big Cats Initiative intern team at Duke University and the National Geographic Society.

In a June 15 Letter to the Editor in Science, Jacobson and an international list of authors point out the neglect of deserts and argue that the ecosystem has disproportionally little funding or research interest when compared with forests and other habitats that are similar in size and biodiversity.

“Deserts are not barren, empty wildernesses. Many interesting species live there. They are just sparsely distributed,” says Jacobson, who is a research associate in the Nicholas School of the Environment. He studies and works to protect cheetahs, which live and rely on the sandy, barren stretches of land. “If we care about cheetahs, then we should care about deserts,” he says.

In the letter, the authors call on the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20,  to support the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and take steps to meet its minimum target of halting land degradation. A statement of support should also include steps to ensure the restoration of desert ecosystems, Jacobson says.

“We want Rio+20 to help ensure that deserts are considered in global priority-setting exercises and consequently receive the attention and funding they deserve,” he says.

In the run-up to the group’s next meeting June 20-22, however, Rio+20 has received heavy criticism for failing to fulfill its initial pledges — reducing poverty, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection as population grows. In a June 14 editorial,  Nature cautions Rio+20 that if the meeting is to be “a platform for major new treaties and commitments — the world is awash with both, and to no avail.”

Jacobson says one of the main benefits of getting Rio+20 to support the anti-desertification goals would be to raise consciousness about the issue. Desertification was originally identified as one of three great challenges to sustainable development at the original Rio conference in 1992. “Achieving the UNCCD goal will not be easy and success will depend on many factors, but for momentum to continue, we need high-level support that can only be achieved here,” he says, adding that “you never quite know the power of a global agreement until you travel around a bit.”

“Forgotten Biodiversity: The Empty Desert.” S. Durant, et. al. Science. June 15 2012. 336: 1379-1380.