We know biodiversity is in decline but our ability to monitor the status of species, and threats, and to assess the outcomes and impacts of conservation projects, is limited by a lack of adequate data. Obstacles to data collection, access and use are numerous and include weak indicators and monitoring plans, inadequate resources and capacity, lack of appropriate tools and limited sharing of data (Stephenson et al., 2017, Biological Conservation, 213, 335–340). As a result, there are large biases and gaps in our knowledge (e.g. there are more data on vertebrates than invertebrates, and more data on European species than African species). Although satellite-based remote sensing offers some opportunities to track biodiversity, our knowledge of species will only advance if we develop capacity for in situ monitoring, especially in biodiversity-rich countries (Stephenson et al., 2017, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15, 124–125).
In 2016 the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) formed the Species Monitoring Specialist Group (https://www.speciesmonitoring.org) to address the ongoing challenges with biodiversity monitoring. The Group's mission is to enhance biodiversity conservation by improving the availability and use of data on species populations, their habitats, and threats. Our objectives focus on improving the accessibility of appropriate tools and methods to fill data gaps, building capacity for monitoring, enhancing data collection and use (especially for neglected taxa), and ensuring databases are inter-linked and meet users’ needs. The Group's unique aim is to enhance the volume and quality of data feeding into the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Group members—drawn from a variety of disciplines with experience as data collectors and users across regions and taxa—work in close partnership with key data stakeholders, including relevant organizations (e.g. UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, UNEP-WCMC), networks (e.g. Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network), partnerships (e.g. the new Specialist Group is a Data User Partner of the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership) and alliances (e.g. the Eye on Earth Alliance), as well as government agencies, NGOs, local communities, academic institutions and the private sector.
One of the Specialist Group's challenges is to prioritize its efforts, and early work is focusing on identifying data and capacity gaps. In November 2017 that work began with the start of a project funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund (http://www.cambridgeconservation.org/collaboration/global-audit-biodiversity-monitoring). The Specialist Group, Birdlife International, RSPB, the University of Cambridge, UNEP-WCMC and the Zoological Society of London are working with their network of partner organizations to conduct the first global audit of biodiversity monitoring. This will include identifying the main geographical and taxonomic gaps in biodiversity monitoring, compiling an inventory of schemes and the methods they use, and linking data collectors with data users. In parallel, the Group is reviewing data needs across the SSC taxonomic specialist groups by surveying members, and reviewing lessons learned on species monitoring from large project portfolios, such as the IUCN Save Our Species Programme. The Group is also planning more in-depth analyses of global databases, building on recent studies (e.g. McRae et al., 2017, PloS One, 12, e0169156). Complementary work underway includes the identification of sites in Africa, Asia and Latin America where partner agencies will help develop and test standardized monitoring methods and protocols to enhance collection of data on poorly-known species, including the application of the proposed IUCN Green List of Species (Akçakaya et al., 2018, Conservation Biology, https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13112). The Group's chair is also working with the IUCN Business and Biodiversity Programme to explore options for biodiversity monitoring frameworks for the private sector, building on collaborative work started with the energy company Enel (https://www.iucn.org/news/business-and-biodiversity/201710/iucn-and-global-energy-company-enel-develop-biodiversity-best-practices).
The initiation of the Species Monitoring Specialist Group will ensure that by 2019 IUCN and its commissions, members and partners, and the broader academic and conservation communities, will have a clearer idea of where biodiversity data are most needed. The aim then will be to focus the Group's attention and expertise on building capacities to fill identified gaps. Ultimately this will lead to an improvement in conservation planning, the enhanced monitoring of project impacts and outcomes, and improved results-based reporting by governments on global environmental goals such as the Aichi Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals.