Systematic Conservation Planning for Biodiversity at Wiko

By Sahotra Sarkar, Fellow 1996 - 1997


Chris Margules, Fellow 1993 - 1994


In 1993 -94, at the initiative of Permanent Fellow, Rüdiger Wehner, Wiko supported a Working Group “Biodiversity Reserve Selection Methods.” It helped define the field of systematic conservation planning as no other single project before or since. Dick Vane-Wright (from the Natural History Museum, London) came to Wiko for the whole year; five other Fellows came for shorter periods: Chris Margules (from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization [CSIRO], Canberra, Australia), Bob Pressey, (from the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney, Australia), Chris Humphries and Paul Williams (also from the Natural History Museum), and Tony Rebelo (National Botanical Institute, Kirstenbosh, South Africa) Their collaboration was supplemented by three Guests of the Rektor: Dan Faith (also CSIRO, Canberra), Kevin Gaston (Natural History Museum), and Nick Nicholls (CSIRO). Between them they brought expertise from three countries, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, in which the development of methods to prioritize areas for biodiversity conservation had emerged as a necessary goal of environmental planning.

The genesis of this project was in February 1992, when Humphries, Margules, Pressey, and Vane-Wright first met as a group in Caracas, Venezuela during the 4th World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas. They decided that it would be a good idea to synthesize methodologies for systematic approaches to biodiversity conservation planning that were being developed in Australia and South Africa by ecologists and in the United Kingdom by taxonomists. The problem was that of the prioritization of areas for inclusion in conservation area networks. Ecologists in Australia and South Africa were working on efficient ways to represent species in protected area networks. Taxonomists in London were using phylogenetic distinctiveness to span the range of genetic diversity in a protected area network. Wehner heard of the project and contacted Humphreys and Vane-Wright in March 1992. Seven members of the team attended a May 1992 symposium organized by Humphries and Peter Forey in London, “Systematics and Conservation Evaluation.” The idea of the Working Group was agreed upon by the participants and formally adopted by Wiko shortly afterwards.

The core problem that motivated this team is easy to state: natural habitats were being transformed into developed areas unsuitable for many species at an unprecedented rate throughout the world. Given that not all biologically valuable areas can be set aside for conservation (because there are many other equally legitimate uses of the land, including agriculture and human habitation) there is a premium on selecting areas “efficiently,” that is in representing as much biodiversity in as little area as feasible. The crucial insight that made this problem tractable was the principle of complementarity (which was independently proposed in all three countries from which this Working Group came): new protected areas should be selected in such a way that they maximize additional biodiversity relative to those that had already been prioritized for conservation (for a history, see Sarkar 2012). By the time the Working Group met, complementarity had already been incorporated into a computer algorithm by Margules, Nicholls, and Pressey: this is what made the analysis of large data sets possible (Margules et al. 1988). Pressey and some others had also systematically shown that opportunistic area selection led to inefficient allocation of areas for conservation: that is, the same representation of biodiversity could be achieved more “efficiently” (in fewer areas) if complementarity were used (Pressey et al. 1993).

Nevertheless, solving the problem of area selection properly was not easy. The Working Group had to face problems of selecting appropriate biodiversity features for conservation (what came to be called “surrogates” [Sarkar and Margules 2002]) and of data collection and management before the computer algorithms could be deployed. Defining biodiversity and, more importantly, operationalizing it for practical use was a conceptual problem that had no clear solution. There was no definitive strategy of optimal survey design. Biodiversity data generally consisted of geographical records of species’ presence from museum collections. These data were “presence-only” that is, when records were absent from a location, it could either be that it had been searched for and not found (“absence” data) or the location could simply not have been sampled. Projecting biodiversity data on maps revealed the extent of this problem: data points typically followed roads, rivers, and other artefacts of easy access. Before data could be used for selecting areas, these problems had to be fixed through modeling and other modes of data treatment. Finally, the methodologies developed had to be such that they would lead to rapid results: the luxury of waiting until the best possible data are collected and ideally analyzed was not available for conservation planners. If they waited that long, the targeted areas may already have been transformed.

Each of these problems was to be a chapter of the proposed book. The problems were discussed by members at a Group Colloquium, “Systematic Methods for the Conservation of Biology,: 26 -27 April, 1994. This meeting brought to Wiko many critical figures in biodiversity conservation worldwide including Kathy MacInnon from the World Bank, Jeff McNeely from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and Beatrice Murray from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). A second Group Colloquium, “Biology, Economics and Politics in Biodiversity Conservation,” was held on 7 -8 June 1994 and was more focused on the book project.

Because of the rapidly developing methodologies for conservation planning and the professional commitments of the participants, the book as originally envisioned was not completed although four solid chapters were written and were later published in a collection of papers addressing the same issues edited by Sarkar and Justus (there will be more on this below). However, the Working Group did have a significant impact. In Nature in 2000 Margules and Pressey published a foundational paper “Systematic Conservation Planning” (Margules and Pressey 2000) that has generally been recognized as the defining document of the discipline.

Meanwhile, in the Spring of 1997 Margules had returned to Wiko for a month to continue working on the planned book about area prioritization methods. There he began discussions with Sahotra Sarkar from McGill University who was a 1996 -97 Fellow working on the history of biology. These discussions led to a long-lasting collaboration (which is still ongoing, as this article shows!) that included finishing the projects started by the 1993 -94 Working Group. Sarkar, who had moved to the University of Texas at Austin, edited a volume of the Journal of Biosciences (with graduate student, James Justus, now on the faculty of Florida State University—see Sarkar and Justus 2002) which included four collaborative papers by Gaston, Humphries, Margules, Pressey, Vane-Wright, and Williams, all initiated during their earlier stay at the Kolleg. Margules and Sarkar, along with several students, also developed a comprehensive plan delineating a set of priority areas for the conservation of at-risk species in Québec (Sarakinos et al. 2001).

Subsequently, Margules and Sarkar also published the first book on systematic conservation planning intended for advanced students and researchers, as well as practitioners (Margules and Sarkar 2007). Very early, in 1993, the Wiko Working Group had realized that conservation planning would require input from areas outside biology, particularly from economics and policy analysis, because the conservation of biodiversity is as much a normative political decision as it is a biological one. The new work by Margules, Sarkar, and many collaborators began to incorporate techniques from decision theory into conservation planning. Meanwhile Margules had become leader of the Asia Pacific Division of the NGO Conservation International and some of these ideas were tested in Indonesia. For example, in 2010 an Indonesian corporate group called Medco supported a project in the Merauke district of south-eastern Papua Province where priority areas for conservation were balanced against areas with high suitability for growing trees for biofuels. Medco subsequently incorporated the results into their business planning. This work was done in collaboration between Conservation International and Sarkar’s laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

Pressey has since joined James Cook University in north Queensland, Australia and with his students is continuing to develop methods incorporating social and economic considerations and prioritizing management actions in both Australia and south-east Asia and in both the marine and terrestrial realms. Vane-Wright retired from the Natural History Museum in 2004 but has continued to have an active interest in this field. Paul Williams continues to work at the Natural History Museum but his focus now is more on bumble-bees. Tony Rebelo has moved to the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Dan Faith has moved to the Australian Museum in Sydney where he continues to work on conservation planning. Kevin Gaston is now at the University of Exeter. Nick Nicholls has retired from CSIRO. Sadly, Chris Humphries died in 2009 (Williams et al. 2011 provide a fitting obituary).

(We thank Dick Vane-Wright for comments on an earlier draft.)


  • Margules, C. R., Nicholls, A. O., and Pressey, R. L. . 1988. “Selecting Networks of Reserves to Maximize Biological Diversity.” Biological Conservation 43: 63 –76.
  • Margules, C. R. and Pressey, R. L. 2000. “Systematic Conservation Planning.” Nature 405: 243 -253.
  • Margules, C. R. and Sarkar, S. 2007. Systematic Conservation Planning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pressey, R. L., Humphries, C. J., Margules, C. R., Vane-Wright, R. I. and Williams., P. H. 1993. “Beyond Opportunism: Key Principles for Systematic Reserve Selection. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8: 124–128.
  • Sarakinos, H., Nicholls, A. O., Tubert, A., Aggarwal, A., Margules, C. R., and Sarkar, S. 2001. “Area Prioritization for Biodiversity Conservation in Québec on the Basis of Species Distributions: A Preliminary Analysis.” Biodiversity and Conservation 10: 1419 -1472.
  • Sarkar, S. 2012. “Complementarity and the Selection of Nature Reserves: Algorithms and the Origins of Conservation Planning, 1980 -1995.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 66: 397 -426.
  • Sarkar, S. and Justus, J. Eds. 2002. Conservation of Biodiversity: the New Consensus. Journal of Biosciences, 27 (Suppl. 2).
  • Sarkar, S. and Margules, C. R. 2002. “Operationalizing Biodiversity for Conservation Planning.” Journal of Biosciences 27 (S2): 299 -308.
  • Williams, D. M, Jarvis, C., Seberg, O., Vane-Wright, R. I. 2011. “Chris Humphries (1947–2009): Botanist, Cladist and Biogeographer: An Appreciation.” Cladistics 27: 223 -229.