Measuring the productivity of threatened-species programmes

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Benard Ochieng as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol 608).

Originally uploaded by beedieu

Out of the 7–20 million species believed to be on the planet, a loss ranging between 140,000– 5 million is projected over the next 25 years. Efforts to avert this situation are present but the challenge has been on how to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes. As a result, a decision on whether to continue funding a programme or not is difficult. For example, it is not easy to justify why one programme should be given preference over the other if their outputs cannot easily be compared. Ross Cullen, Geoffrey Fairburn and Ken Hughey of Lincoln University have found a solution in their study “Measuring the productivity of threatened – species programmes,” published in a 2001 issue of the journal, Ecological Economics.

In this study, an output measure, Conservation Output Protection Year (COPY), and Cost–Utility Analysis (CUA) method was used to evaluate New Zealand threatened species programmes. In New Zealand, there are 1000 threatened species out of which 31 have species recovery plans (DOC/MFE, 2000 and DOC, 1999). These recovery plans are normally directed toward controlling predators, especially the introduced ones such as possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) or competitor numbers. The species statuses are described by their position on a ranking system. An example of a widely known ranking system is the IUCN Red List criteria, which places species in one of the 11 categories including; Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, and Lower risk (IUCN, 1994).

Hector’s dolphin
Originally uploaded by electropod

CUA was first developed to evaluate health–care programmes. It measures the output of a programme by way of utility or worth of a health status. The argument was, if the outcomes of health could be measured in units called ‘Quality Adjusted–Life-Years’ (QALY), it was possible to compare different medical interventions. Comparisons could be made if the direct costs of each type of intervention were divided by the QALY they gained (Drummond et al., 1997). Cullen et al. (1999) and Stephens and Lawless (1998) applied CUA to conservation and implicitly used the term ‘utility’ to refer to the change that occurs in an ecosystem. Cullen et al. (1999) developed the COPY as means for evaluating the output gained from various species conservation projects. COPY serves same functions as QALY does in health care evaluation because it allows effectiveness of unlike activities to be compared.

Twenty two threatened–species recovery programmes were sampled but from five, response was not obtained thus 17 were evaluated. A categorization system was developed which is closely related to the IUCN Red List although with seven categories. This was used to evaluate the conservation statuses of the species. Data for estimating COPY gained by each programme was provided by the conservation group leaders. They rated the species status with and without management for each year the recovery plan was in effect. Using two equations, the conservation pay–off and cost per copy for each programme were calculated.

Nine species recovery programmes produced zero COPY or no conservation output. One of the possible explanations to this is that threatened species take a long time to respond to conservation efforts. Eight species indicated improvement in their conservation status: Black stilt, Yellow–eyed penguin, short–tailed bat, Takahe, Hector’s dolphin, Campbell Island teal, Brothers Island tuatara and Cook Strait tuatara.

Estimating the cost of programmes and projects posed a challenge. Of interest were direct operational costs, organizational overhead component, staff salaries and the capital charge. However, the study indicated that the CUA can provide valuable information on the productivity of threatened-species recovery programmes.


Cullen et al., 1999. Copy: a new technique for evaluation of biodiversity protection projects. Pacific Conserv. Biol. 5 (1999), pp. 115–123.

Drummond et al., 1997. Methods for the Economic Evaluation of Health Care Programs (second ed.),, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

DOC, 1999 Department of Conservation Annual Report for the Year Ended 1999, Department of Conservation, Wellington.

DOC/MFE, 2000. New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy, Wellington. Available at

Stephens and Lawless, 1998 Cost–Utility Evaluation of Natural Heritage Biodiversity Conservation Projects, Department of Conservation, Wellington.

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