Forecast-based action for conservation

It’s been a looong time since I’ve posted, but hey, life is busy. Anyway, I want to tell you about my new project: Forecast-based Action for Conservation (I’m going with ForCon for short). Today, just a bit of background…

First off, for this to make sense, I need to address where I’ve been for the past couple of years… Since finishing my PhD, I’ve been working as a postdoc in the Meteorology department at the University of Reading. Bit of a curveball, maybe? I promise it makes sense! In my role in Met, I’ve been using satellite-derived estimates of rainfall and process-based models to forecast the risk of drought across Africa. Satellites, models and Africa – these were all things I studied during my PhD – the infamous *transferable skills / knowledge*. So, although I knew nothing about meteorology, I at least had a basis for my role in Met.

A bit more detail now. Drought is a big and growing problem in Africa. Because a large portion of the population relies heavily on rainfed agriculture for food and income, drought can have devastating impacts on lives and livelihoods. Previously, when drought caused suffering, humanitarian organisations would respond by providing aid. However, the ability to forecast drought before it happens presents an opportunity to act early and prevent suffering in the first place. Depending on the severity and certainty of the drought forecast, early action might include: distributing drought-tolerant seeds for planting, improving water storage facilities or providing cash transfers to purchase food.

The process of acting early, based on a forecast, to minimise the impacts of weather events before they occur, was coined Forecast-based Action (FbA) by the Red Cross. FbA is not only limited to drought events – around the world, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations are using FbA to mitigate the impacts of flooding, cyclones, heatwaves and more. FbA is seen as a key tool to counter the increase in extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Now, back to thinking about elephants (you know me), I wondered whether there was the potential to use forecasts to improve elephant conservation. Elephants also suffer as a result of drought. The 2009 drought in Amboseli reduced the elephant population there by 25%, and human-elephant conflict increases during times of drought as people and elephants come into close contact when sharing scarce resources. Using drought forecasts, could we anticipate these conservation outcomes and take early action to minimise them?

And so, the idea FbA for conservation was born, ta-dah! I discussed the idea with colleagues and decided to apply for a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship to fund further exploration (more on this soon). The rest was history, as they say. I start my fellowship today (1st September 2021) and will be working to demonstrate the potential for FbA in conservation over the next 3 years.

Specifically, I’ll be focussing on human-elephant conflict in Kenya. As I mentioned earlier, human-elephant conflict intensifies during times of drought, resulting in the loss of human and elephant lives. My hope is that we can use drought forecasts to anticipate the timing and location of heightened human-elephant conflict and design early actions to prevent it. I’m working with a great group of collaborators – representing elephant conservation (Save the Elephants and Big Life Foundation), humanitarian action (Kenya Red Cross Society), drought risk management (the National Drought Management Authority), and forecasting (Kenya Met Department and ICPAC) – to give us the best shot.

If successful, FbA for human-elephant conflict could be rolled-out across Africa, and more than that, I think FbA is a concept that could be applied to the conservation of any population of a species threatened by a forecastable weather event. Here’s a turtle-heatwave example for you…

Sea turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches around the world. Nest temperatures below the sand are important for hatching success; if temperatures get too hot, the developing turtles inside the eggs die. So, if a weather forecasts indicates very high temperatures are expected at a turtle nesting beach (1), funds can be released so that conservationists can take early action (2) to prevent losses (3). One option is to install temporary structures over nests to provide shade and prevent overheating. Alternatively, nests can be excavated, and eggs artificially incubated at safe temperatures. In this way, forecasts can help to improve turtle hatching success and contribute to the conservation of the species.
Infographic by the very talented Cara Gallagher ❤

Let’s see… Today is day 1 and I’m excited to get started. I’ll try to document the process over the next few years here (I’ll believe it when I see it!). Thanks for reading!

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