In this post, Johan du Toit, focuses on a dilemma in conservation practice: should we do what seems best now or gather more information to (maybe) come up with a better plan?
Johan handled the recent paper by Sean Maxwell (@Sean_Ecology)  et al. “How much is new information worth? Evaluating the financial benefit of resolving management uncertainty.

Maxwell_LianaJoseph_Koala_IMG_9141
Photo by Liana Joseph

Conservation practitioners are continually confronted by the question of whether they should divert resources and time to collecting more information or just bang on with what seems the best course of action with the information at hand.  New information might be worth collecting if only there were ways of knowing in advance how valuable it might be.  As a first step it is important to quantify, and then consider improving, the cost efficiency of the program in terms of units of conservation objective (population size, habitat area, etc.) gained per unit of financial expenditure.  That helps identify what types of new information might be valuable.  Then, buried in the toolbox of economists is ‘value-of-information analysis’, used in medicine, industry, and fisheries management.  It is a tool seldom wielded for conservation applications because conservation goals are seldom valued in financial terms.  But now we have a case-study.

Photo by Liana Joseph
Photo by Liana Joseph

In their paper just out in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Sean Maxwell and his co-authors applied value-of-information analysis to the problem of conserving a vulnerable koala population in southeastern Queensland, Australia.  Urbanization has fragmented the remaining habitat while vehicle collisions, dog attacks, and stress-related disease have driven up the mortality rate.  Despite their race against time, local conservation practitioners thought they might need to commission studies to find out more about koala survival and fecundity rates, as well as the effect of habitat condition on mortality.  However, the value-of-information analysis (read the paper for the methods) found that, unless the budget of the project was substantially raised, the additional information would not result in a more cost-efficient approach.  The take-home message is that if alternative management options have clearly different cost efficiencies then it is best to adopt the most cost-efficient option.  Most practitioners would consider that a ‘no-brainer’.  But if the two options are expected to have similar cost efficiencies in the absence of improved information, then it is well worth resolving the uncertainty before committing to a course of action.  Now protagonists of adaptive management would recommend muddling through a conservation problem with a pragmatic learn-as-you-go approach to resolving uncertainty, which is fine in many cases.  There are, however, cases in which alternative courses each require a commitment to separate decisive actions for which some cost efficiencies are unknown.  In such cases the cost efficiencies could be assumed to be equal (i.e. unknown) and then the value of gaining additional information should be high.Conservation practitioners are continually confronted by the question of whether they should divert resources and time to collecting more information or just bang on with what seems the best course of action with the information at hand.  New information might be worth collecting if only there were ways of knowing in advance how valuable it might be.  As a first step it is important to quantify, and then consider improving, the cost efficiency of the program in terms of units of conservation objective (population size, habitat area, etc.) gained per unit of financial expenditure.  That helps identify what types of new information might be valuable.  Then, buried in the toolbox of economists is ‘value-of-information analysis’, used in medicine, industry, and fisheries management.  It is a tool seldom wielded for conservation applications because conservation goals are seldom valued in financial terms.  But now we have a case-study.

Photo by Liana Joseph
Photo by Liana Joseph

For example, the international conservation community is literally on the horns of a dilemma right now because of uncertainty – and polarized attitudes – surrounding the question of what to do to save rhinos from extinction.  One option is to steadfastly maintain a ban on all trade in rhino horn, educate Asian consumers out of the market, and rely on law enforcement to contain poaching and trafficking.  Another option is to actively develop a legal trade in rhino horn through regulated markets, which would allow commercial rhino farms to eventually take the pressure off wild populations.  We know the first option has not worked on the whole so far, although with intensive and creative management approaches, such as in Zimbabwe, some rhino populations are still doing quite well.  But we do not know if the second option could backfire by opening up a massive market that could overwhelm all regulatory structures.  The two options are mutually exclusive and each might incur an opportunity cost.  Burning stockpiled rhino horn to raise public awareness negates the opportunity of selling that horn to support the legal-trade option, but then of course we do not know if the legal-trade option would actually work.  On the other hand allowing legal trade makes it much harder to control trafficking, but then free market forces might drive traffickers out of business anyway.

Conservation dilemmas are fueled by uncertainty and so it is encouraging to see this new case-study in which value-of-information analysis is used to objectively evaluate alternative management options.  It might not help those koalas in southeastern Queensland, which is actually helpful to know, but it just might help jog a conservation program onto a better track elsewhere.  Who knows?

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