The fuller context of monitoring

by Harry Biggs

Data should never be collected blindly, even though the value of long-term historical datasets is sometimes put forth as a reason for such collection. Rather, there should exist good aims in the short-term (what do we need for good decisions or info today?), medium-term (for next month or next year?) and long-term (what would we be aiming at in the long run, over decades?). If you have a close look, you will find that many monitoring projects are actually aimless, having started with some general feeling of need for information, which would then somehow miraculously solve all the problems.

Well, occasional "gee-whiz" benefits sometimes emerge unexpectedly from such data, but what is more likely to happen is that the whole system becomes overburdened with too much poor quality data, decreasing levels of motivation, and too few useful products, given the effort needed to keep the collection system going. There’s an old saying "If you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to get there".

So how do we develop aims in a conservation context?

There are several well-known goal-setting techniques. For instance, the Kruger National Park followed an objectives hierarchy technique which produces an upside-down tree, with the mission statement at the top, branching into increasingly specific details below. It is set up at the outset taking into account

  • stakeholder values and perceptions (what they expect from a national park)
  • the international, national and local context (one example of each would be the Convention on Biodiversity, the Water Act; and the local Integrated Development plans respectively)
  • and the outstanding strengths of the Park, and what determines these.

If you want to read more about these, consult the front half of Volume VII of the Kruger Park Management plan, available at (go via Scientific Services).

There are simplified versions of these techniques available, where the whole process of setting up workable goals for a park is done in one day, or even a morning.

What is the advantage of having these goals?

Although these goals themselves must be subject to revision over time, they at any stage provide the logical launch-pad for the fuller context for monitoring. Monitoring is not an end in itself, but serves the needs determined in the objectives for your park, reserve network, or other biodiversity initiative. The only recognised ways of managing resources today are adaptive management processes – in South Africa it has become customary to refer to strategic adaptive management (SAM) which explicitly includes checking against longer-term goals in adaptive management. Monitoring will be successful if is seen in its rightful position in the Strategic Adaptive Management framework.

Adaptive Management and the key role of monitoring

One needs to go beyond just the buzzword "adaptive management" to understand the key role of monitoring, how it is in influenced by other parts of the cycle, and which parts, in turn, it influences . 

Strategic Adaptive Management

It is important to realize that this cycle can take place at different levels e.g. at your local task team level, the reserve level, and the head office level. By nesting these sensibly inside each other, the actions at the different levels work together sensibly. Note that the diagram above is slightly simplified to make it more easily understandable initially – for instance, the role of discrete research projects has been left out. To find out more detail about adaptive management, see "Adaptive Management – a tool for conservation practitioners" published by the Biodiversity Support Programme at

So what does all this mean for CyberTracker monitoring?

It means that unless you can keep the full circle turning, your monitoring will eventually die down and your project fail. To keep it going:

  • remember to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve – the clearer and (within reason) the more detail on your objectives, the better
  • design a monitoring programme that serves those objectives, remembering that there are almost always short, medium and long-term objective. Each item on your screen/in your database should relate to one or more objectives.
  • Remember that a requirement of adaptive management is that all initiatives should be achievable (i.e. not infeasible).
  • make sure you have a system in place which does something worthwhile and in a reasonable timeframe, with the monitoring data. This means organised feedback to whichever decision makers you serve, at whichever levels, in appropriate ways.
  • Pre-agree on thresholds which, if reached, will be cause for concern about the environment or the biodiversity you are measuring (i.e. when will the amber light be deemed to have come on?). Better still, if you can confidently see ahead of time that a particular threshold for some monitoring theme will be reached in the future, switch on the amber light in exactly the same way. The amber lights reflect the objectives or "desired state" people have bought into together in the goal-setting phase.
  • As far as you can, make sure that when the amber light comes on, that the mangers are obliged to consider action. Your organisation should commit to this, else why should they bother to monitor in the first place?
  • That action should be followed up in various ways. One of the most important is to see that the action decided on, once it has taken place, achieves the desired effect and causes the amber (or red) light to go off again. This is obviously achieved by monitoring the same element which caused the amber light to come on in the first place. If it stays amber or red, we need to consider whether we are practicing an infeasible policy or whether to look for more resources or at other approaches.
  • Another important follow-up is to reflect whether, even if the amber light "goes back to green", the original mission is actually being achieved by the particular objectives. If not, monitoring may help to point out that even when management action corrects the level of the particular indicator (and the amber light goes off) the original high-level intention in the mission or vision is not being achieved. This calls for either revision of the objectives or adjustment of the mission.