Statistical ecology can unleash the power of biodiversity data in Africa


Africa has an immensely rich diversity of plant and animal species. These are the building blocks of healthy ecosystems. Yet the predicted loss of habitat and wildlife on the continent threatens biodiversity. Recent reports from intergovernmental expert groups on biodiversity and ecosystem services and climate change also highlight how biodiversity loss and climate change threaten human well-being.

Good information is crucial to understanding and reversing this trend. More and more data on biodiversity is available around the world, thanks to satellite imagery, citizen science programs and forest rangers, for example. But socio-ecological systems are extremely complex and therefore data may still be scarce, biased or incomplete. Not only does data need to be collected, but it also needs to be analyzed if it is to be useful for decision making.

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The emerging field of statistical ecology holds great promise for meeting these challenges. This discipline uses growing datasets and innovative analytical methods to address important questions in the science and management of biodiversity. Statistical ecology offers African researchers opportunities to develop local solutions to the ecological challenges of the continent. It is currently a rapidly developing field, even in Africa where it is mainly led by research groups active in South Africa.

Two graphs showing ecology and statistics
Recent development in the field of Statistical Ecology as compiled from Web of Science (a) by publications worldwide, and (b) by institutions working on African data. African institutions are shown in orange, although others have delegations in Africa.
Henintsoa Onivola Minoarivelo

Our goal at the University of Cape Town’s Center for Ecology, Environment and Conservation Statistics is to answer important ecological questions using state-of-the-art statistical methods. The case studies below, in which researchers from the center are involved, illustrate the potential of this exciting field.

Statistical Ecology Case Studies in Africa

South Africa’s biodiversity data pipeline for wetlands and waterbirds is a clear example of a project that can have an impact on conservation. This collaborative project led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute brings together data from citizen science bird monitoring programs to determine the status of waterbird populations and wetlands. Information on population trends and species distribution is essential for conservation managers. The project will turn raw data into usable metrics and post the results online for everyone to see. It has the potential to inform decisions and policies.

Statistical ecology can also help limit poaching. From rhinos and elephants to abalone and cycad, the wildlife trade is a threat to African biodiversity.

A recent study by researchers analyzed data collected by rangers to identify elephant poaching hotspots. Across the African continent, tens of thousands of rangers patrol large areas every day, helping to monitor biodiversity and the threats to it. The challenge is that the locations of elephant carcasses they detect may reflect patrolling patterns rather than actual poaching patterns. The researchers used adapted statistical techniques to correct this bias and show where poaching was really concentrated at their Zimbabwean study site.

Sometimes researchers have to use sophisticated techniques to collect reliable data, especially when the species is difficult to detect. For example, acoustic monitoring has been used to monitor the population of the Cape Peninsula Moss Frog. The researchers placed microphones at the study sites to record sounds from the environment. Then they used automated sound recognition software to distinguish frog calls from mosses. The abundance of frogs could be estimated from the frequency and location of calls using innovative statistical models. These imaginative procedures allowed them to monitor the population of this endangered endemic species without the need for specialized field staff.

Challenges and way forward

Despite these promising examples, statistical ecology has yet to reach its potential in Africa. Large gaps remain in data on African biodiversity, linked to limited local research funding and government support in many countries. Citizen science and remote sensing are attractive options for overcoming these limitations at relatively low cost, but specialized skills are needed to analyze these data.

There is a promising trend of increasing research and training in statistical ecology in Africa, but many institutions lack capacity and resources. Global-North researchers working on African systems should try to collaborate more meaningfully with African institutions to help fill these gaps. This is essential to enrich the way data inform African biodiversity policy and management decisions.

Next year there will be a unique opportunity to share knowledge, build capacity and create a long-term collaborative network. Our Cape Town center hosts the International Conference on Statistical Ecology, a flagship event in the field. We encourage Africans working in this space to submit an abstract.The conversation

Henintsoa Onivola Minoarivelo, postdoctoral researcher, University of Cape Town; Francisco Cervantes Peralta, Postdoctoral Fellow in Statistical Ecology, University of Cape Town, and Timothy Kuiper, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Cape Town.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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