Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A “Colombo Plan” for Biodiversity Conservation

By Hugh Possingham

Building an effective and self-supporting network of conservation research professionals across the region could prove to be Australia’s greatest biodiversity legacy.

The vast majority of the research on biodiversity conservation in Australia is funded by Australian taxpayers through Australia’s governments or Australian universities, with some scattered industry and international funds. Much of our research is used by agencies in other countries.

Don’t we have enough problems of our own? Why would we spend time writing papers about prioritising threatened species in New Zealand, optimal methods for surveying tigers in Sumatra and conservation investment in the coral triangle? There are at least four answers.

First, for everything we give away we get plenty back. Discovery research is just that, finding out new things or posing and solving problems that have never been solved before, anywhere in the world. If it is in the international peer-reviewed literature then, if the system is working, it is genuinely novel.

Furthermore, most of the ideas, discoveries and tools transcend continental boundaries and are useful to everyone. Tools and techniques for making decisions about prioritising actions and monitoring work anywhere.

Second, given Australian applied ecology is only about 5% of global applied ecology we get back about 20 times what we put in. By making our contribution we buy a seat at the co­operative venture of science – which includes sharing discoveries, people and ideas through many mechanisms like conferences, exchanges, training and publications. Cooperation and sharing avoids reinventing the wheel, and scientists are relatively co­operative at a global scale.

Third, “no country is an island” with respect to biodiversity. Australia’s biodiversity is interconnected to our neighbours through many processes ranging from the direct movement of animals like whales and waders through the long-term evolutionary and ecological processes that enabled the Great Barrier Reef to have much of its biodiversity arrive from the north over the past 12,000 years. Failing to work with our Asian and Pacific neighbours to protect their biodiversity threatens the long-term persistence of our biodiversity.

Fourth, we should shoulder global responsibilities in bio­diversity conservation much as we shoulder global responsibilities with respect to human rights and health. Here Australia has an enormous but largely unfulfilled opportunity. I estimate that somewhere between Burma and Fiji, taking in Brisbane on the way, about one-third of all terrestrial species on the planet are packed into 10% of the world’s land. The marine area in the middle of that broad transect has no parallel on the land in terms of the richness of its marine biodiversity.

Yet many of these countries have limited capacity to do the conservation research they need to do. Training and skills in ecology, conservation, GIS, ground tactic sciences and conservation economics is absent or limited.

Colleagues and I recently returned from teaching a conservation planning course in Sabah, Malaysia, on how to use planning software called Marxan. The “students”, who ranged from government and NGO staff to university students, were talented, engaged and enthusiastic. However Malaysia, which in some respects is richer and more sophisticated than Australia, has few tertiary teachers or researchers in conservation. What can, or should, we do?

Every year Cambridge University hosts the Student Conference on Conservation Science ( The model has been transported abroad, and when I was there a few years ago as a plenary speaker I asked if we could steal the idea. They were more than enthusiastic.

The Student Conference on Conservation Science is more than just another conference. The only participants are research students, especially MSc and PhD students. It emphasises participation by students from developing countries, and it works on building networks and skills. The thought is that these networks will enable conservation professionals to be far more effective in the long term.

Our trip to Sabah reminded me of the importance of this sort of event and the long-term benefits it delivers. Hence we will commit to doing the same here, as soon as we can, with a special focus on research students from South-East Asia and the Pacific. If we were to pull this off and keep it going, it could prove to be our greatest biodiversity legacy – an effective and self-supporting network of conservation research professional across the region.

Professor Hugh Possingham is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.