Environmental conservation, is it working?

Many conservation and monitoring efforts are redundant, inefficient or ineffective, according to the winner of the 2018 Wiley Next Generation Ecologist Award.

“Conservation decisions are only as good as the data that underpin them,” says Ayesha Tulloch, an applied ecologist and ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney.

To understand where we might best apply management actions to protect or restore ecological communities, we need to predict the condition of entire systems over near-future timeframes.

However, many ecologists don’t know what data are available to do ecological forecasting, and what timeframe of forecasting is required to inform their problem.

“Much of my research has focused on improving how we track change in ecological communities, and how we predict responses to human actions such as livestock grazing, invasive predator control and fire management,” she says.

For example, satellite-derived maps can help track changes in ecosystems over time – and this monitoring can be used to inform management decisions, as well as progress towards national and international biodiversity goals such as the Aichi Targets. However, big data are not a panacea to all management and monitoring problems.

Readily available satellite data on the extent of natural habitats has high return on investment for assessing progress towards “reducing loss of natural habitats and degradation” (Aichi Target 5) but low benefits for informing on the conservation status of threatened species, which is better-informed by trends in species’ populations over time.

“Governments and land management agencies tasked with tracking environmental change need to be able to calculate costs and benefits of data collection and analysis to ensure investment in informative, efficient monitoring programs, and my research helps them with that,” says Ayesha.

Through her research on the past effectiveness of management, Ayesha has provided efficient, repeatable approaches for NGOs, academia and governments to choose what to monitor and how, enabling better-informed ecosystem assessments and effective feedback for action on declining ecosystems. She now wants to expand this research towards predicting the future.

“Being awarded the 2018 Wiley Next Generation Ecologist Award will help me to advance my research goals as well as initiate a collaborative network of like-minded ecologists interested in progressing iterative ecological forecasting science in Australia,” says Ayesha.

She will use this $3,000 award to deliver a workshop to inform early-career researchers about ecological forecasting, and to write a review paper highlighting the current state of ecological forecasting in Australia.

Ayesha will present the Wiley Next Generation Ecologist Plenary at the Ecological Society of Australia Conference in Brisbane on Thursday 29 November 2018.