snow leopard

This project is led by Hugh Possingham

Using ecological, economic and mathematical tools to change the ways in which decisions are made in conservation


Conservation managers and policy-makers need to adopt a more business-like approach.  We are developing processes and tools that enable government and non-government organisations to make smarter and more cost-effective decisions for conserving biological diversity.

The Challenge

The world’s biological diversity is in rapid decline yet that diversity underpins most aspects of human wellbeing, including health and prosperity. Extinctions appear to be occurring at around 100-1000 times the “normal” rate. Most countries have agreed to slow the extinction rate, or bring the extinction rate back to more normal levels but none have succeeded. Hence the grand challenge is twofold. First we need to get governments and non-government organisations charged with the preservation of biological diversity to be far more business-like. This means using the tools of decision science to prudently allocate funds to conservation actions, including monitoring and evaluation. Second, once we have shown that we are being efficient with what little resources we have, the level of resourcing for biodiversity conservation needs to increase.

As Professor of Conservation Decisions at Imperial College, I will use ecological, economic and mathematical tools to change the ways in which government and non-government organisations approach conservation decision-making.


Using a wide range of economic and mathematical approaches we have discovered that current decision-making approaches can be highly inefficient. For example, spending on threatened species has focused mainly on the species most likely to become extinct – those species in the emergency ward – with no consideration of the fact that different species cost different amounts to secure, and the chance of securing some critically endangered species, even with the best recovery plan, is low. Further, at a global scale, most of the big environmental non-government organisations have concentrated their efforts.


Our research group is fundamentally reforming the activity of those responsible for making conservation decisions around the world. Our impact has occurred through the provision of decision support tools and approaches. Specifically, we developed Marxan, freely available software that helps organisations and governments to build spatially-explicit cost-effective conservation action plans. Marxan is now used in over 100 countries to inform the location of new national parks and new marine protected areas. For example this software underpinned the rezoning of the entire Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to create the first large-scale systematically designed marine park in 2004. Since then Marxan has helped countries build vast networks of protected areas from the Amazon to South Africa.

In the area of prioritizing investment in threatened species we have devised a very simple protocol – the Project Prioritisation Protocol – for enabling organisations to decide how best to invest in threatened species recovery. This rational and transparent approach now informs the expenditure of funds for New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales, and is spreading globally. It is based in simple return-on-investment thinking that is also altering how we think about investment in monitoring and evaluation.

The Future

The transfer of smart thinking into the routine operation of government takes time. While the approaches we have developed ten to twenty years ago are now commonplace, we are working on new robust and novel decision-support tools for new conservation problems. For example: should we translocate species threatened by climate change to places outside their former range that are predicted to be suitable in the future? How can we accommodate climate change in reserve system design? What climate change adaptation options will cost-effectively conserve species and ecosystems? How do we trade-off species preservation with the delivery of ecosystem services in conservation actions? There are a hundred pressing environmental problems that need smart solutions fast.

The Team

We work with researchers and managers all over the world. Some include:

  • Colleagues at The University of Queensland: Drs Kerrie Wilson, Richard Fuller, Jonathan Rhodes, Clive McAlpine, Eve McDonald-Madden, Martine Maron, Anthony Richardson, Yvonne Buckley, Salit Kark, Carissa Klein, Maria Beger and Chris Brown.
  • Colleagues at The University of Melbourne: Drs Mick McCarthy, Mark Burgman, Peter Vesk, Brendan Wintle
  • Colleagues at The Australian National University: Drs David Lindenmayer, Don Driscoll, Phil Gibbons
  • Wildlife Conservation Society: Drs James Watson, Stacey Jupiter, Liana Jospeph
  • The Nature Conservancy: Drs Eddie Game, Peter Kareiva, Alison Green
  • Dr Sylvaine Giakoumi, Greece
  • University of Rome: Drs Luigi Boitanim Dr Carlo Rondinini
  • Dr Sarah Bekessy, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
  • Dr Atte Moilanen, University of Helsinki
  • Dr Martin Drechsler, Helmholtz Institute, Leipzig
  • Dr Mike Runge, US Geological Survey
  • Dr Jim Nicholls, US Geological Survey

Funders & Sponsors

The majority of our funding over the past five years has come from two sources – The Australian Research Council and The Australian Federal Environment Department. We have numerous other supporters and partnerships from donors, to philanthropists to small granting bodies