View from an island

Visitors to my home state are staggered by the extent and pristine state of our biodiversity. A fraction larger than West Virginia, a bit smaller than Ireland, half of Tasmania’s land is protected by reservation as national parks, private reserves and covenants. Yet, as with the rest of Australia, this isn’t sufficient to solve our threatened species’ problems. Some may require a larger area, or critical habitat elements that aren’t sufficiently reserved. Areas devoted to residential development or primary industries commonly overlap with threatened species’ distributions; 212 threatened species have been recorded in the Greater Hobart area.

But without knowing what these species most need, it’s difficult to protect them effectively – let alone help them recover from their at-risk status. Activities thought to be a risk to our threatened species are regulated – but we need up-to-date monitoring information to know whether the regulations are effective and sufficient, and whether our threatened species list includes the right species.

I’m hoping that citizen science might be able to help out here, and over the past two weeks I’ve been talking to Tasmanians with experience or a strong interest in this approach. As I fly from Australia towards the USA, I’m pondering the ideas that emerged.

As elsewhere, the aims of Tasmanian citizen science projects have mostly been to find out where species of interest are, and whether their populations are stable or declining. The projects have most frequently focussed on birds.

I was particularly interested in people’s views on what made a project long-lasting. Population increase or decrease is a fundamental indication of the success of your conservation efforts; but you can’t usually detect meaningful changes over a short period.

Somewhat circularly, the usefulness of a project’s results was the most commonly identified factor for its endurance. It makes sense that the clearer the value of someone’s contribution, the likelier it is that they will continue contributing their time. Similarly, supporters are more likely to continue contributing funds and other resources to a demonstrably useful project. It seems that participants from all walks of life are more committed if they can see the work reported in scientific publications that translate into management action – especially if they can identify their own contributed dot on the map or the graph.

A ‘fun’ factor to activities can help too, but both a pride in having the requisite skills and the chance to share the satisfaction with fellow participants appear to be particularly valuable. There was agreement that collaborations could also help a project endure: if one contributing agency cannot continue support, others will still be on board to maintain continuity.

So, to be useful and thereby endure, citizen science projects may be as time-consuming to run as any other science project – this is not a new conclusion. But there’s a fear that the bubble of popularity currently surrounding citizen science doesn’t highlight this critical issue. Project organisers need to allocate appropriate time for planning, maintaining excellent communication, adequately training participants, engaging experts and safely storing data. Clever analyses may also be needed to help circumvent issues of observer variability or biases in where observations were made. Otherwise, a hydra of poorly prepared citizen science projects – created with the less demanding aim of encouraging awareness, but presented as a quest for science – could translate to a moribund monster group of disillusioned ex-citizen scientists.

dead hydra

Some Tasmanian-specific conclusions emerged from my discussions too: on the availability of potential citizens to monitor the hundreds of species listed – or still to be recognised as requiring listing – as threatened. Our small population has relatively low literacy and numeracy rates, and many remain to be convinced of the value of biodiversity conservation – so it’s especially important to make the most of those volunteering their time!

What do you think, though? Please let me know in either in a comment below or on naturetrackers.tas[at]gmail.com

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