Project 6: The effectiveness of protected areas at avoiding species extinctions

This project will quantify the contribution of conservation measures in general – and of protected areas in particular – to reducing species’ risk of extinction. Based at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Montpellier, France), with secondments to BirdLife International (Cambridge UK; 3.5 months) and UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (Cambridge, UK; 3.5 months).

This is Project 6 out of 15 PhD positions currently available as part of the Inspire4Nature training programme. Deadline for applications: 16 April 2018 (midnight, Brussels time). We are no longer accepting applications to this project. Have you submitted an application and are you wondering what happens next? Check this page!

PhD topic

News about biodiversity are often depressing, including annual reports of thousands of species at risk of extinction or spectacular declines in animal populations. These negative trends persist despite increasing world-wide investments in conservation efforts, raising the question of whether such efforts are actually successful. Protected areas are the most important conservation tool, covering now nearly 15% of the global land surface, yet there are population declines in many of them too.

Estimated numbers of bird extinctions in the past five centuries, and of extinctions prevented through conservation actions. Source: Rodrigues (2006) from data in Butchart et al. (2006).

These declines, however, are no proof that conservation does not work, only that conservation efforts are not being sufficient to offset the much larger anthropogenic drivers of population declines. Indeed, conservation efforts are frequently not about generating positive biodiversity trends, but about avoiding biodiversity declines. Accordingly, measuring conservation effectiveness requires not only understanding how biodiversity has changed over time, but also contrasting these observed trends with a “counterfactual” scenario backcasting what would have happened in the absence of conservation (Rodrigues 2006). Recent studies have developed such counterfactual scenarios, for example by investigating how many more bird species extinctions would have gone extinct without conservation efforts (Butchart et al. 2006; Rodrigues et al. 2006), and how much steeper would have been the declines in the overall extinction risk of species (Hoffmann et al. 2010, 2015; Young et al. 2014). Yet, these measures are difficult to obtain, given the difficulties in backcasting what would have happened in an alternative world without conservation.

Understanding the value of conservation measures requires not only looking into alternative scenarios for the past, but also forecasting alternative scenarios for the future. Indeed, the future persistence of many species relies on a continued investment in conservation actions, including through protected areas. Quantifying how important these efforts are requires contrasting forecasts of biodiversity trends with and without conservation measures.

The aim of this project is to advance the quantification of the impacts of conservation measures in general – and of protected areas in particular – in reducing risk of species extinctions.

To meet this objective, the PhD student will develop backcast and forecast scenarios of biodiversity change. This will involve crossing data on species’ present and past geographical distributions and abundance, with data on past and predicted future threats (e.g. deforestation), with data on past and future predicted conservation measures (e.g. protected areas). 

It is expected that this project will contribute to more accurate measures of the impact of conservation measures in the past, as well as of their value into the future. These results will guide and inform informing priorities for policy-making.

Related references

  • Butchart, S.H.M., Stattersfield, A.J., & Collar, N.J. (2006) How many bird extinctions have we prevented? Oryx, 40, 266–278.
  • Hoffmann, M., Duckworth, J. w., Holmes, K., Mallon, D.P., Rodrigues, A.S.L., & Stuart, S.N. (2015) The difference conservation makes to extinction risk of the world’s ungulates. Conservation Biology, 29, 1303–1313.
  • Hoffmann, M., Hilton-Taylor, C., Angulo, A., et al. (2010) The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates. Science, 330, 1503–1509.
  • Rodrigues, A.S.L. (2006) Are global conservation efforts successful? Science, 313, 1051–1052.
  • Young, R.P., Hudson, M.A., Terry, A.M.R., Jones, C.G., Lewis, R.E., Tatayah, V., Zuël, N., & Butchart, S.H.M. (2014) Accounting for conservation: Using the IUCN Red List Index to evaluate the impact of a conservation organization. Biological Conservation, 180, 84–96.

The PDFs of these articles can be downloaded here.

Institutional context and Supervision

The PhD student will be hired by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the largest public research organisation in France, and enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Montpellier. S/he will be physically based at the Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive (CEFE), in Montpellier, France. The CEFE is the largest research centre in Ecology in France, and a Joint Research Unit of the CNRS and the University of Montpellier. The academic supervisor of this project is Ana Rodrigues, a CNRS Senior Researcher.

This project is in close collaboration with BirdLife International and the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). BirdLife International is the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, whose work focuses on the conservation of birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. The student will interact strongly with the Science, Policy and Information Management Department, which carries out research to underpin the conservation programmes of the BirdLife Partnership, being supervised by Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Chief Scientist.

UNEP-WCMC is the executive agency of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UN Environment) for biodiversity assessments. A world leader in biodiversity knowledge, it specializes in measuring biodiversity change, the causes of that change, evaluating options, and improving the capability of others to do the same. The student will be supervised by Nina Bhola (Programme Officer) and Elise Belle (Senior Programme Officer) at the Protected Areas Programme.

The student will spend 7 months in secondments: 3.5 months with BirdLife and 3.5 months with UNEP-WCMC. During this period, s/he will be based in the David Attenborough Building (Cambridge, UK), which houses nine conservation organisations and several departments of the University of Cambridge, who together form the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

This project will further benefit from a collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, ZSL, through the participation of Mike Hoffmann, Head of Global Conservation Programmes; and with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, through the participation of James Hardcastle, Programme Development Manager.

Salary: gross monthly income ca. 2500-2800€/month, net ca. 2000-2300€/month (depending on family circumstances; see here - under "Fantastic working conditions" for more details).

Ideal candidate

Candidates must meet all the general eligibility conditions applicable to all Inspire4Nature PhD positions, as described under “check if you are eligible” in this page. In particular: candidates cannot have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in France for more than 12 months within the previous 3 years, and must be early-stage researchers (no PhD yet, within the first 4 years of their research careers). In addition:

Required for this position:

  • A strong academic record in Ecology or a related field, including a Master’s Degree (or equivalent).
  • Competency in the use of R (or another programming language) including in multivariate statistical analyses.
  • Good proficiency in English: at least B2 level in understanding, speaking and writing as defined by the European Language Levels Self-Assessment Grid.

Desirable for this position:

  • Experience in spatial data analyses (e.g, with ArcGIS, QGIS, R).
  • Conversational skills in French desirable; if not, knowledge of another Latin language an advantage.
  • Interest in scientific communication and outreach.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview planned for the 4th-5th June - please keep these dates open.

Useful links


For any questions regarding application procedures, check this page first. If you cannot find your answer there, contact us. For any questions regarding the scientific content and institutional context of the PhD, contact Dr. Ana Rodrigues.

Ready to apply?

For the instructions on how to prepare and submit your application, go to this page.

Only applications that are complete, in English, that respect the instructions in this page and that have been submitted before the deadline (16 April 2018) will be considered eligible.

We are no longer accepting applications to this project. Have you submitted an application and are you wondering what happens next? Check this page!


Academic Host

    Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Montpellier, France 

  Ana Rodrigues


    BirdLife International
Cambridge, UK
        Stu Butchart
    UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre
Cambridge, UK
        Nina Bhola
        Elise Belle


     Zoological Society of London
London, UK
        Mike Hoffmann
    International Union for Conservation of Nature
Cambridge, UK
        James Hardcastle