Statistical ecology can unlock the power of biodiversity data in Africa
Henintsoa Onivola Minoarivelo, Francisco Cervantes Peralta, Timothy Kuiper,
November 23, 2021
Africa boasts an immensely rich diversity of plant and animal species.
These are the building blocks of healthy ecosystems. Yet, the projected
loss of wild habitats and species on the continent threatens biodiversity.
Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panels 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 understand and reverse this trend. More and
more data about biodiversity is becoming available worldwide, through
satellite imagery, citizen science programmes and wildlife rangers, for
example. But socio-ecological systems are enormously complex and so data
can still be sparse, biased, or incomplete. Not only must data be
collected, it also has to be analysed if it is to be useful for decision
The emerging field of statistical ecology offers great promise to meet
these challenges. This discipline uses growing datasets and innovative
analytical methods to tackle important questions in biodiversity science
and management. Statistical ecology offers opportunities for African
researchers to develop local solutions to the continent’s ecological
challenges. It is currently a fast developing field, even in Africa where
it is led mostly by active research groups in South Africa.
Two Graphs Showing Ecology and Statistics
The recent development of the field of statistical ecology as compiled from
Web of Science (a) per publications worldwide, and (b) per institutions
working on African data. African institutions are shown in orange, although
others have delegations in Africa. Henintsoa Onivola Minoarivelo
Our aim at the centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and
Conservation at the University of Cape Town is to answer important
ecological questions using cutting edge statistical methods. The case
studies below, in which researchers at the centre are involved, illustrate
the potential of this exciting field.
Case Studies of Statistical Ecology in Africa
The South African Biodiversity Data Pipeline for Wetlands and Waterbirds is
a clear example of a project that can make an impact on conservation. This
collaborative project led by the South African National Biodiversity
Institute collates data from citizen science bird monitoring programmes to
determine the state of waterbird populations and wetlands. Information
about population trends and species distribution is critical for
conservation managers. The project will transform raw data into usable
indicators and display the results online for anyone 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 cycads, wildlife trade is a threat to African biodiversity.
A recent study by researchers analysed data collected by rangers to
identify elephant poaching hotspots. Across the African continent, tens of
thousands of wildlife rangers patrol wide areas every day, helping track
biodiversity and threats to it. The challenge is that the locations of
elephant carcasses they detect may reflect patrol patterns rather than true
poaching patterns. The researchers used tailored statistical techniques to
correct this bias and show where poaching was actually concentrated within
their Zimbabwean study site.
Sometimes, researchers need to use refined techniques to gather reliable
data, particularly when the species is difficult to detect. For instance,
acoustic monitoring was used to keep track of the population of the Cape
Peninsula moss frog. Researchers placed microphones at the study sites to
record sounds from the environment. Then, they used automated sound
recognition software to distinguish calls from the moss frogs. Frog
abundance 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 threatened endemic species without the need
for specialist field staff.
Challenges and the Way Forward
Despite these promising examples, statistical ecology has yet to reach its
potential in Africa. Large gaps remain in African biodiversity data, linked
to limited local research funding and government support in many countries.
Citizen science and remote sensing are exciting options for addressing
these limitations at relatively low cost, yet specialised skills are needed
to analyse these data.
There is a promising trend of growing research and training in statistical
ecology in Africa, but many institutions lack capacity and resources.
Researchers from the Global-North working on African systems should try to
collaborate more meaningfully with African institutions to help address
these gaps. This is critical to enrich the way data informs decisions in
African biodiversity management and policy.
There’s a unique opportunity next year to share knowledge, build capacity,
and create a long-term collaboration network. Our centre in Cape Town is
hosting the International Statistical Ecology Conference, a flagship event
in the field. We encourage Africans working in this space to submit an