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The ants came marching one by one….

Posted by on February 10, 2014

By Natasha Neill, executive officer at the Society of Biology

Counting animals is normally associated with colourful cartoons or primary school songs, but trying to monitor how many animals there are can often be a difficult yet critical task. Species number and distribution around the world give the best indication of how vulnerable the species is, but this isn’t quite as easy as counting sheep.

Scientists will look at one species in particular, so techniques in monitoring are really important. Knowing how many of a certain species are left in the wild is key in determining the International Union for Conservation or Nature (IUCN) level of threatened species. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species gives information on the levels of threat to thousands of species, providing information on their geographic range, ecology, risk of extinction and actions being taken to conserve them.

The Red List Category and Criteria for some animals can be surprising, the Giant Panda, often a symbol of conservation, is Endangered, but the Amur Leopard is Critically Endangered, the last step before becoming extinct in the wild.  For funders and charities, this sort of information is often useful in determining priorities, but it can raise bigger philosophical questions. Should you try to save an species that has only 20 left in the wild, or is extinction inevitable at that point? Should you focus your efforts where there might be more of a chance that the species can be saved, or should we always try to stop extinction with every species? Should we be focusing on conserving habitats to conserve multiple species at the same time?

Technology is playing an increasing part in allowing scientists to obtain data where humans simply can’t cover the area. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has launched the Wildlife Picture Index in Mongolia where huge areas of land like the Gobi Desert require a helping hand. Here, innovative camera trapping techniques give a good indication of biodiversity and help to estimate population numbers in and around protected areas.

The Society of Biology is hosting an evening focussing on discussion around the scale and challenge of monitoring species and celebrating the UK-Mongolian bioscience collaboration. As part of the evening representatives from IUCN, ZSL, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee will take part in a panel discussion chaired by Dr Mark Downs. The discussion will focus on the scale and challenge of monitoring species from the perspective of each organisation, and will be followed by a networking reception.

Monitoring Mongolia will be held on the 12th March from 17:00 – 20:00 and places can be booked through mySociety for Society members and non-members.

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