A framework for deriving and triggering thresholds for management intervention in uncertain, varying and time-lagged systems

Robert J. Scholes, Judith M. Kruger
Koedoe | Vol 53, No 2 | a987 | DOI: | © 2011 Robert J. Scholes, Judith M. Kruger | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 20 January 2010 | Published: 06 April 2011

About the author(s)

Robert J. Scholes, Natural Resources and Environment, CSIR, Pretoria, South Africa
Judith M. Kruger, South African National Parks, Skukuza, South Africa


Ecosystems are characterised by complexity: high connectivity, the presence of positive and negative feedback loops, non-linear, abrupt and sometimes irreversible changes, delays between cause and effects, and uncertainties in observations, understanding and prediction. ‘Adaptive management’ is the preferred approach for the rational management of such systems. Where the management objective is to allow natural feedbacks and adaptive processes to operate as much as possible – as it is in many areas set aside for biodiversity conservation – a key issue is defining the thresholds that will trigger management intervention. This paper outlines and illustrates a logical process for doing so, taking into account the characteristics of complex, continuously changing ecosystems and the reality of information that is partial and understanding that is always provisional. After identifying a key ecological process that is believed to have an element of irreversibility beyond a certain point, the process has several steps, (1) define an indicator of the system state, (2) set a limit of acceptable change and add a safety margin, (3) project the indicator forward using a model, including uncertainty, (4) note the time when the indicator might transgress the safety-buffered limit and (5) subtract ecosystem and management response times. If the resultant time is at hand, an action is indicated – if not, the action is to continue to monitor the situation and refine the observations and models.

Conservation implications: Ecosystems are characterized by abrupt and sometimes irreversible changes. The challenge that face conservationists and managers are to identify which of these changes are likely to be irreversible and at what levels this will occur. This paper describes a logical process that enable mangers to determine which ecological processes have levels of irreversibility and monitor their status at all times. Once these processes are nearing the levels that are undesirable management actions can be invoked to prevent this from happening.


adaptive management; dynamic; monitoring; thresholds; time-lagged system


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