Citizen science and the value of protected areas

Bird lists compiled by ‘citizens’ may inform the effectiveness of our reserve networks. (Photo by Dirk Hovorka)

Bird lists compiled by ‘citizens’ may inform the effectiveness of our reserve
networks. (Photo by Dirk Hovorka)

Long-term monitoring data are critical for determining whether protected areas are able to achieve their objectives. The problem is that, in most cases, these long-term data ‘officially’ do not exist. The good news is that even though ‘official’ data sets collected by scientists often don’t exist, ‘unofficial’ observations made by keen ‘amateur’ naturalists are sometimes readily available. Can these citizen-science records shed any light on the effectiveness of protected areas? Megan Barnes and colleagues examined the value of bird lists in assessing impact in Australia’s Wet Tropics and found they can make a real contribution (Barnes et al., 2015).

The aim of Megan’s analysis was to evaluate the contribution of protected areas to the conservation of endemic birds. She did this by comparing abundance and trends in birds within and outside of protected areas in the Australian Wet Tropics in Queensland. The data used were non-standardised volunteer collected bird surveys (bird lists) and the approach they used involved List Length Analysis. Similar to other studies, they estimated trends in species populations with a Bayesian logistic regression to infer bird presence from bird lists.

Her analysis targeted 21 bird focal species. Overall, she found that 18 of these have been stable since 1998. Sixteen were more likely to be found within the Wet Tropic protected areas, two were more likely to be recorded outside, and three showed little difference. Except for one endemic species, there was no difference in trends in prevalence between protected and unprotected areas. These results suggest that for the majority of species, protected areas may contain better habitat than unprotected areas, but birds inside protected areas are not significantly better off through time, as long as forest outside protected areas remains intact.

These findings have direct implications for the monitoring and management of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and other landscape-scale management approaches. Since there is no marginal benefit of protected areas, their results potentially reflect the effectiveness of landscape management. Maintaining intact rainforest may be enough to ensure the conservation of viable populations of range-restricted birds in the Queensland wet tropics in the medium term! The researchers recommend targeting more systematic monitoring towards species with high uncertainty, small sample size, indicated declines and differences between protected and unprotected areas. These include the golden bowerbird, fernwren, Atherton scrubwren, and satin bowerbird.

See Decision Point #83 for the complete story


Barnes M, JK Szabo, WK Morris & H Possingham (2015). Evaluating protected area effectiveness using bird lists in the Australian Wet Tropics. Diversity and Distributions 21: 368–378.

1 comment on “Citizen science and the value of protected areas”

  1. Pingback: Public Communications and Popular Press | Megan. D. Barnes, Ph.D.

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