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Where are all the biodiversity data?

By Global Wildlife Conservation on December 08, 2020   duration

Black and white rhinos gather with reticulated giraffes on the skyline in Kenya. Species like these, along with 1000s of others, are included in global data sources such as the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. (Photo by Robin Moore)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

A new study tries to answer the question

Conservationists worldwide need up-to-date data on the status of species and the pressures they face in order to track progress and take decisions. What’s working well and needs to be replicated? What’s working less well and needs changing? Global databases act as repositories for data already collected and access to such information can help projects in their monitoring efforts. But many conservationists do not know where to look or how to find these data.

Some global databases--like the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility--are relatively well known in the conservation world. But what other databases are available? What data do they hold and can it be accessed easily? Which ones can help with monitoring?

Technology like camera traps (above) and acoustic recording devices (below) are increasing the volume of data available on biodiversity. But where can people find the data? (Above photo by Alexander Belokurov,; below photo by PJ Stephenson)

To answer these questions, Global Wildlife Conservation teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to conduct an assessment that was recently published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Lead author of the paper is Dr. PJ Stephenson, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Species Monitoring Specialist Group, based at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

“There is all this data out there that conservationists could be using to help them monitor biodiversity, but many people don’t know where to find it and how to use it," Stephenson says. "It seems crazy, but no one seems to have brought together a summary of global data sources before.”

The IUCN/GWC study found 145 global data sources and 26 types of report that regularly synthesize such data, and highlighted those most useful for monitoring. But they ran into several problems along the way.

“One of the first obstacles we faced was deciding what a database is," Stephenson says. "A lot of data are available, but they are presented and shared in different ways. Some websites give data for one indicator--like ZSL’s Living Planet Index, which provides population data for vertebrates. Others act as platforms to allow access to multiple data sets, like the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Database. In the end, we decided to use the term ‘data source’ and include all those we found that were global in coverage and may have some value in monitoring.”

Report co-author, Carrie Stengel, is data and metrics manager at GWC. Stengel explained that, like many conservation agencies, GWC struggles to get the data it needs to track biodiversity.

“We want to know which species are declining and which threats and pressures are affecting them, so we can help provide the necessary conservation responses,” she says. “We started looking into it and realized it was impossible to find a list of data sources that could help us and our partners on the ground. We therefore saw that an inventory was needed. The results proved very interesting and have helped us identify data sources we will now use and add to in order to improve conservation project performance.”

The paper highlights one of the biggest challenges to data use is that most of the global data--and most of the knowledge and capacity to use it--are housed in countries which have less biodiversity. Almost all global databases sit in Europe or the United States. Efforts need to be made to better share data with people who most need it in tropical countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Mountain gorillas have been monitored regularly for many years by park rangers and scientists in Central Africa. More species, especially smaller vertebrates and invertebrates, need to be monitored and the data shared if we are to track and improve our conservation efforts. (Photo by PJ Stephenson)

“We know we will have missed some data sources, but we encourage people to get in touch and let us know of others we can add to the list," Stephenson says. "The Specialist Group will maintain an up-to-date list on its website--”

Stengel adds: “This list of data sources will not solve all of our monitoring problems, but we hope it will go some way towards encouraging wider sharing and use of biodiversity data. Then this information can be used to help improve the conservation of threatened species.”

About the author

Global Wildlife Conservation

GWC conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation.

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