/ 3 July 2017

Academic research must add value to conservation

Professor Colleen Downs
Professor Colleen Downs

Professor Colleen Downs is passionate about research and conservation and believes that research must contribute to conservation. She sees herself as “an academic who crosses the gap between academia and applied conservation”.

She is currently a university fellow and professor at the school of life sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus, and holds an NRF SARChI Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

As a terrestrial vertebrate biologist, with broad and interdisciplinary research interests, she focuses on how land use and climate change influence the physiology and behaviour of birds, reptiles and mammals. Her other interests include science education and developing research capacity at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

During the past five years she has increased her research output and student supervision. Downs and her students have made significant contributions to understanding the physiology, ecology, behaviour and conservation of a range of southern African terrestrial vertebrate species. They have shown how some of these species have different physiological and behavioural responses to changing environmental variables (compared with northern hemisphere species, where prior research is focused).

“For two decades I have highlighted the plight of South Africa’s only endemic parrot, the Cape Parrot,” says Downs, who has integrated the research findings on many rare and threatened species, including the Blue Swallow and Nile Crocodile. She has co-ordinated academic research and citizen science programmes and overseen and contributed to management plan developments, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora listings, and more practical conservation programmes. “I want academic research to add value to conservation beyond peer-reviewed publications,” she says.

The research is done within theoretical frameworks, but some aspects of the research were initiated in response to specific needs, in conjunction with local wildlife authorities and municipalities.

Depending on research project specifics, there are lab trials, field research and pilot studies to ensure the efficacy of research methods. The professor and her team use the latest research equipment such as: ibuttons (electronic monitoring chips); thermal cameras for body temperature monitoring; camera traps for habitat use, population estimates and detailed diet studies; GPS-cell transmitters for detailed movement, home range and habitat studies; and blood samples as indicators of body condition, disease and genetics.

Downs says that the focus is on publishing in international peer-reviewed journals. This raises the value of the peer-reviewed work, the institution’s scientific profile, ensures the competitiveness of students, provides feedback to stakeholders, and raises the profile of individual conservation projects.

Projects contribute to students’ postgraduate degrees, and as part of degree fulfilment, each project must incorporate novel research to increase the overall body of knowledge. “Our research has both theoretical as well as practical implications,” says Downs.

She notes that they are breaking ground with innovative research in the urban ecology field, use of occupancy modelling and leading the way in Africa in these developing fields.

The research findings are incorporated into: Protected Area Management and extension plans on a provincial governmental level; town planning and green space development for metropolitans and municipalities; and individual threatened species action plans and South African Red List Assessments.

“All contribute to the International Biodiversity targets, of which South Africa is a ratified signatory,” says Downs.