The landscapes of southern Africa have changed at a dizzying pace over the last few decades. We may not link our stress levels, our road rage, or feelings of alienation to the steady homogenisation of our environment. But they are profoundly linked.
In most towns and cities, the melodious dawn chorus has dwindled to an incessant chip-and-chatter of sparrows, punctuated by the raucous calls of hadeda ibises. The disconnection of people from the environment is already profound. Sadly, most of us don’t notice change until it’s too late.
Britain and other European countries have long experienced highly transformed landscapes. They have realised that human quality of life indicators can and should include the numbers of birds on farmlands, or the richness of morning birdsong. Whatever our culture, birds tend to be important signs to watch. And it’s so easy to learn to read the signs.
South Africa has been pioneering the use of early warning systems for biodiversity. This has been done as a window onto the natural world to support adaptive environmental management. People are used to early warning systems for tsunamis, for economic shocks, for disease outbreaks and for drought. Biodiversity changes can be on a slower time scale, but they are of equal or greater importance to detect before it’s too late.
Mobilising people to track what’s happening
Four things are crucial to the success of biodiversity early warning systems.
First and most fundamentally, the workforce: an engaged and interacting community of professional scientists and citizen scientists who are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject, whether it’s birds, frogs, proteas, lizards, or corals.
Second, the methods. Citizen scientists need to follow a simple but scientifically sound protocol, designed by the professional scientists, in order for the data to be reliable and repeatable. This means basic stuff like recording observer effort, following the same approach each time for comparative purposes, and covering an area in a predictable and ecologically representative way.
Third, the audience. Other scientists, policymakers, planners and managers – whether in government or on farms – need to have a strong interest in using the information provided by the early warning system. South Africa’s government does, not least because it needs to report to a number of international conventions and agreements.
And that’s where the fourth part comes in: the science/policy translation process.
Data are meaningless until they can be processed through trends analysis and policy translation. This requires a great deal of tedious, nuts-and-bolts data handling, cleaning, sorting and statistical analysis to ensure that it is accurate and robust enough on which to rest decisions about environmental management. So raw data, gathered by researchers and scientists, eventually gets turned into trend graphs and headline indicators after a process of milling and interpretation.
Policy translation is the difficult thing for many scientists. We weren’t necessarily encouraged to remember how to communicate with normal human beings, and explain trends and implications. But this is something that many people and institutions in South Africa are quite good at. And statistical ecology, a very scarce skill in Africa, is gaining momentum with two very valuable research-and-training centres, the ADU and SEEC. They will ultimately merge and are pioneering the large-scale, long-term citizen science data projects and analysis on which policy translation depends.
Relative to most other African countries, South Africa has an embarrassment of riches in this field. There are wonderful projects, an ardent volunteer army of birders and other citizen scientists, reasonable funding and institutional support, excellent skills, and even good political will. So it’s up to us to use these strategic advantages to good effect in managing ecosystem health.
Southern Africa’s two most widely known and used biodiversity citizen science projects are both species atlases: snapshots of species distribution in space and time. They are the Protea Atlas Project from 1991-2001 with follow-up work, and the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2, started in 2007 and still going strong. SABAP2 is the second and highly successful round of a very participatory first SABAP1 atlas twenty years earlier.
Both projects revolutionised the practice and accuracy of conservation biology and global change biology worldwide, as they are increasingly used in scientific and policy applications. Both have improved what we know about biodiversity on the ground, at a finer scale and with more accuracy and reliability than was earlier possible. They have been widely used internationally in top scientific journals.
And perhaps most importantly, they have helped foster a widespread culture of biodiversity passion and monitoring across southern Africa – that it’s quite okay, and even cool, to be a nature geek. Thousands of volunteers from across the region have contributed data, often at significant personal cost and effort, to these national and regional projects.
Ultimately, we can only protect what we know and appreciate. The passion of many South Africans, Namibians, Zimbabweans and Swazis for birds, plants and other taxa, and the fascination of scuba divers for coral reefs and sea fish, is the key to unlocking a window. Through this window we can watch our environment carefully, and anticipate serious changes before it’s too late.