Bioacoustics paper published in Science

In 2017, Mongabay’s Conservation Effectiveness series looked at what the scientific literature tells us is working and not working in the field of conservation. The series produced award-winning reporting which generated wide-ranging discussions across conservation.

One of the key conclusions from the project was that conservation studies generally haven’t been designed to rigorously assess effectiveness of projects, interventions, or strategies. After the series wrapped up, we kept thinking about this issue and whether there may be other ways to measure conservation outcomes.

Zuzana Burivalova, the Princeton scientist we hired to oversee the academic research component of Conservation Effectiveness, uses bioacoustics in her field work. This prompted conversations about applying bioacoustics to evaluating conservation effectiveness and eventually spurred Burivalova, Mongabay Founder and CEO Rhett Butler, and Eddie Game from the Nature Conservancy to write a paper, which was published yesterday in Science: The sound of a tropical forest.

“An increasing number of ecologists and conservation scientists are using bioacoustics in their research,” said Butler. “We argue that bioacoustics could be used to strengthen zero deforestation commitments, monitor biodiversity at scale, and provide a mechanism for evaluating the effectiveness of conservation projects and interventions. Our hope is that the paper raises visibility for everyone working on bioacoustics.”

The paper calls out two opportunities: using bioacoustics to strengthen corporate zero deforestation commitments that are being adopted by companies in the palm oil, timber, and cacao sectors, among others; and creating a world-class central repository for bioacoustic data that can be used by researchers.

“The dream is a scenario where zero deforestation companies are funding real-time monitoring of forests, with data fed into the cloud for use by scientists, giving us a better picture of what’s working and what’s not working in conservation and landscape restoration,” said Butler. “Combined with satellite data and networked camera traps, we’d have a much clearer picture for measuring trends in wildlife populations.”

To date, the paper has attracted significant media attention, with more the 30 media outlets covering the study within 24 hours of publication. Butler also penned an op-ed for Singapore’s Straits Times about how bioacoustics could support zero deforestation commitments. And Mongabay covered the paper as well.