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Iterating for Scale: Island Conservation

Semi-standardized models for conservation actually already exist. However, to get the solutions right, the models need to be iterated, refined and improved through continued replication and tweaking. Conservation leaders need to continually ask “is my solution sufficient to the problem?” and “if it’s not, what other aspects of the problem need to be solved to make a real difference at bigger scale?” 

Removing invasive rats from Palmyra Atoll has led to a 5,000% increase in native trees, an abundance of crabs, and an increase in seabirds. Source: Atlas Obscura/New York Times

Scale isn’t just another word for growth. Scale is about departing from a linear trajectory into an ever-steepening—exponential, even—curve of impact over time. Using a model developed by the Mulago Foundation, Kinship Conservation faculty and Fellows have learned how to use the Design Iteration process to design a model to create lasting change at a big scale and an organization that can take it there; the process follows the steps below: 

Carolina Torres has participated in educational camps that focus on environmental education for the kids of Floreana Island, in support of the Floreana Ecological Restoration Project. Source:

One model that has worked is that of Island Conservation, co-founded by Kinship Faculty member Bernie Tershy. When species are lost, ecosystems unravel, and we see and feel the direct effects on our world, livelihoods, and well-being. Island species are incredibly unique, yet they are highly vulnerable to novel disturbances. Thus, islands represent the greatest concentration of both biodiversity and species extinctions. Bernie first looked for solutions to the extinction crisis by simplifying the problem. Marine islands host 37% of critically endangered species and have suffered more than 60% of known extinctions, despite covering <2% of earth’s surface. Invasive species are the leading driver of island extinctions, so eradicating these species is an obvious conservation priority and became the central mission – the “big idea” – of Island Conservation. 

For example, on Palmyra, a moist tropical atoll ecosystem in the Central Pacific, nonnative introduced black rats were severely affecting seabirds, native crabs, and plant populations. They predated on native tree- and burrow-nesting seabirds and contributed to reducing native canopy species cover. In 2011, Island Conservation and partners removed invasive rats from the atoll and have since documented a 5000% increase in native trees, an abundance of crabs, and an increase in seabirds. 

The Floreana mockingbird was the first mockingbird species described by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle in 1835.  This Endangered bird has been extirpated from its namesake island due to predation by invasive species. Source: Galapagos Conservation Trust

The invasive species eradication model has been revised, improved, and iterated many times across the world. Advised in its early days by Kinship Fellow Josh Donlan, Island Conservation and partners have successfully restored 65 islands, benefiting 1,218 populations of 504 species and subspecies. While most examples have focused on eradicating rodents from uninhabited islands, the latest iteration of the model, currently being led by Kinship Fellow Carolina Torres of Island Conservation, is attempting to eradicate rodents from Floreana, an island in the Galapagos archipelago with a human population. The goal is to restore the island’s habitat by removing invasive rats and feral cats, which will in return support the social and economic development goals of the Floreana community to be a world-class nature-based tourism destination.

All of the Kinship Fellows who have worked with Island Conservation have followed and learned from the Design Iteration process. And Island Conservation has proven to be a model of scalable success; restoring islands by eradicating invasive mammals has repeatedly proven to be a high impact conservation action. 

Featured: Kinship Faculty Bernie Tershy and Kinship Fellows Josh Donlan and Carolina Torres

Bernie Tershy is an Adjunct Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz, where he co-directs the Coastal Conservation Action Lab. He is the co-founder of Island Conservation, which has created over 900,000 hectares of new marine and island protected areas and protected over 250 seabird colonies and 250 insular endemics from extinction. Bernie is also co-founder and board chair of Conservation Metrics and co-founder of Freshwater Life. Bernie is a member of the IUCN’s Invasive Species Specialist Group and Commission on Ecosystem Management. In addition to serving on the Kinship Conservation Fellows faculty, Bernie serves as a consultant to the Mulago Foundation’s Henry Arnhold Fellows Program and is on the boards of OneReef and the Tony Hawk Foundation. He earned his B.S. in Biology from UC-Santa Cruz, an M.S. in Marine Sciences from San Jose State University, and a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell University.

Josh Donlan (Kinship Fellow 2008)founded Advanced Conservation Strategies in 2006 to focus on program design, sustainability science, and evaluation. He has worked on environmental and social issues in over a dozen countries, including the management of invasive species, environmental restoration, conservation finance, and incentive-based approaches to environmental conservation. Previously, Josh served as the Chief Scientist for Project Isabela in Galápagos Islands, one of the world’s largest island restoration projects. He has held fellowships with the Fulbright Commission, Guggenheim Foundation, Alcoa Foundation, and the Switzer Foundation. Josh holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and an M.A. from the University of California-Berkeley.

Carolina Torres (Kinship Fellow 2019) is the International Legal and Admin Manager at Island Conservation. Carolina is an attorney at law, with a minor in litigant, financial and corporate law, from Universidad de los Hemisferios. She is a member of the Assembly of the Ecuadorian Center for Environmental Law (CEDA) and the International Trans-disciplinary Academy of the Environment (ATINA). In the conservation field, she has been the lead attorney of the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD). During her period at the GNPD, she managed environmental issues regarding recent vessel wrecks on San Cristobal Island as well as environmental cases in the Galápagos.

Download the Full Case Study: Iterating for Scale, Island Conservation
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