Beyond threat maps

Targeting threats alone won’t save our wildlife

Too often, governments and conservation organisations have only one goal for restoring populations of declining species: to reduce what they perceive as the main ‘threat’. However, the big focus on ‘threat hotspots’ by nations and international conservation bodies can be wasteful and inadequate. It may even push threatened species closer to the brink.

To manage threats, organisations develop and use ‘threat maps’. Often these are maps of human pressures affecting species (eg, loss of forest cover due to land clearing for agriculture and urbanisation, or the location of fishing pressure in marine areas). A huge number of organisations including The Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, and Wildlife Conservation Society have a long history of developing and using threat maps to direct limited conservation funding. These organisations typically use threat maps to do one of two things: either target the areas that are the furthest removed from the threats for protecting wildlife (pristine ‘wilderness’ areas), or target the areas that have the highest perceived threats to wildlife and work on that threat.

Unfortunately, these kinds of traditional threat-focused approaches have a number of drawbacks. They limit conservationists to solving only one part of the problem, can be expensive compared with alternative management choices, and may have undesired outcomes if the threat being targeted is only one of a suite of problems affecting the wildlife in an area.

For example, consider Australia’s numerous government-funded programs to eradicate introduced foxes in order to protect small native marsupials. If we only target the foxes with poison baiting, the numbers of feral cats and rabbits, which are suppressed by foxes, tend to boom once the foxes are gone. So in many places the small marsupials will still be hunted – only by cats instead – and the rabbits will wreak havoc in the landscape, depriving native animals of food and shelter. Continued investment in fox baiting will do little to restore these populations without new thinking about alternative actions. And this could have serious consequences for conservation.

We recently led an effort to develop a new framework for making efficient and effective conservation decisions that solve these problems. Our main issue is that reducing threats isn’t a biodiversity outcome on its own. Prioritising threats rather than solutions leads us to cling to a single goal – and miss the big picture. To avoid putting all our resources into ‘threat hotspots’, we propose a new conservation decision-making framework that considers all the threats, what else lives in the area, whether the threat is stoppable, the costs of alternative conservation actions and how likely they are to succeed (Tulloch et al, 2015).

Through this structured decision-making process we can weigh up the pros and cons of each action, and pick the best one – the action that is not only cost-effective, but also results in positive outcomes for threatened wildlife.

Figure 1: An example of the different maps often used in conservation planning. This example comes from a planning exercise for Marine Protected Areas in Fiji (see Decision Point #79). Traditionally, one or more of these are overlaid with conservation features and used to prioritize areas for conservation. For threat hotspot mapping, the three threat maps might be added together to develop a cumulative threat map that shows highest or lowest values in areas where all three threats are present or absent, respectively. (From Tulloch et al, 2015)

Figure 1: An example of the different maps often used in conservation planning. This example comes from a planning exercise for Marine Protected Areas in Fiji (see Decision Point #79). Traditionally, one or more of these are overlaid with conservation features and used to prioritize areas for conservation. For threat hotspot mapping, the three threat maps might be added together to develop a cumulative threat map that shows highest or lowest values in areas where all three threats are present or absent, respectively. (From Tulloch et al, 2015)

Returning to our fox example, the new framework helps determine the best ways to achieve ‘real’ conservation outcomes, that is boost long-term survival of small marsupials, rather than simply decreasing the number of foxes. This gives us many more options besides killing foxes. For instance, it may be cheaper to restore habitat to provide shelter that protects marsupials directly from multiple predators. Or it might be more effective to set up enclosures or guard dogs to protect the breeding locations of threatened animals – and not waste money on baiting foxes at all.

Using this structured framework helps us to pick our battles and know what we can and cannot stop. In doing so, we might find it’s better to give up on one action when a threat is too difficult or costly to eliminate, and spend the money on something or somewhere else that will have a better outcome for threatened wildlife. We need new approaches such as these to help save wildlife by ensuring that actions are prioritized in locations where the best outcomes for biodiversity can be achieved – not just in the places that we can map the threat.

More info: Vivitskaia Tulloch


Tulloch VJD, AIT Tulloch, P Visconti, BS Halpern, JEM Watson, MC Evans, NA Auerbach, M Barnes, M Beger, I Chadès, S Giakoumi, E McDonald-Madden, NJ Murray, J Ringma & HP Possingham (2015). Why do we map threats? Linking threat mapping with actions to make better conservation decisions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13: 91-99.

Rhinos and threat maps

Threat maps only focussing on poachers are unlikely to save the African rhino. (Photo by Duan Biggs)

Threat maps only focussing on poachers are unlikely to save the African rhino. (Photo by Duan Biggs)

With only 26,000 left alive, African rhinos are one of the most threatened animals worldwide, with numerous action groups and conservation organisations trying to save them. Despite this, poachers still kill thousands every year. To save the rhino, conservation bodies use ‘threat maps’ that show where poaching is worst and then put a lot of effort into trying to catch the poachers. However, poaching in turn is driven by poverty, lack of education and a booming illegal market for rhino horn. If we only target poachers, it restricts the supply of rhino horn at the same time as market demand increases. This drives up the prices – and leads to animals being killed at ever increasing rates. To overcome poaching we need to address the things which drive it in the first place – not just catch a few poachers, who will soon be replaced by others.

4 comments on “Beyond threat maps”

  1. Claudia Silva Reply

    Hi. The site apparently automatically selects Spanish as my language, making the article appear in “spanglish”, that is with a few words in spanish and the rest in english such as “Por ejemplo, it may be cheaper to restore habitat to provide shelter…”. Please try to fix. Cheers.

  2. Fiachra Kearney Reply

    Aside from the correct statement that catching poachers will not solve much, the analysis of rhino poaching is incorrect and idealistic. Rhino poaching is not driven by poverty or lack of education. Poverty may be a contributing factor but drivers are factors such as the significant wealth of Asian buyers, Asian consumer habits, beliefs and cultural norms of those consumers, as well as behavioural norms in Africa. While these issues must be tackled, if we only work to change those things all rhino species will be extinct in the wild.
    There is also no robust evidence to suggest that targeting poachers has a relationship with increased killing. The authors need to look beyond rhino horn to other illicit trade types, including other wildlife, to increase their understanding of how illicit trade and criminal activity functions.
    The actual activities of poaching and movement of rhino horn, up to the consumer point of sale, constitutes a criminal problem with conservation impacts, not vice-versa. As such the approaches up to point of sale must be aligned with expertise in the relevant fields.

  3. Diana Reply

    And what proof is there that conservation NGOs only map threats to direct their resources? The very same groups you criticize in fact use decision support tools all the time, which combine threats, socio-economic data, biodiversity etc…oh, basically the very tools you are discussing. Not the best way to promote your work.

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