Board games for conservation management

As a PhD student in ecology, I always thought of my interest for board games as a mere hobby without any connection with my work. A field course in conservation management organised by Jaboury Ghazoul and Claude Garcia in the Norther West Highlands in Scotland unexpectedly changed my perception.

The course had for setting a land of stark beauty; melancholic lochs and glens dominated by dramatic mountains, and majestic Scots pines standing above heather moorland in remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest. To get a glimpse of land management in this part of Scotland, interviews were organised with natural reserve rangers, foresters, large private estate owners, crofters (usually tenants of a small agricultural unit mostly producing lamb and beef), managers of community-owned estates and interested citizens. Ignoring the rain, enduring the midges, suffering the occasional sunburn and fighting off the ticks, the keen students that we are bombarded the interviewees with questions.

A great variety of management objectives are expressed by stakeholders. Some lands are managed to enhance recreational and aesthetic value, some for their conservation value, and others for generating revenue by growing commercial timber, generating energy, or even sheep farming to some extent (although all estates need funding, some management plans are encouraged by grants). Many estates fulfil not one but several of these objectives. For example, on the estate managed by the Forestry Commission, some plots were for timber production, others for native woodland restoration.

We saw that different objectives can lead to the same management plan. The rangers at the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve plant native trees for conservation, local communities do it to establish woodlands for recreation, and large land-owners plant because it is a source of income through government grants.

There are tensions and conflicts, and, in the western highlands of Scotland, deer often lie at the heart of these tensions. Overgrazing by deer is the major threat to reforestation success. Restoration of pine trees requires tree planting, but also deer control, largely by culling (deer stalking). But some stakeholders, such as the large sports hunting estates, derive a large share of their incomes on deer stalking, and do not appreciate the reduction of deer numbers for conservation or community interests.

Indoors, we unravelled information gleaned from the different stakeholders, in all its complexity. We identified issues, actors, resources, and the interactions among them. We discussed and debated interpretations and perspectives. We eventually had the skeleton of a multi-agent system. Agents are autonomous entities actively interacting with their environment and the resources in the system according to certain rules. The consequences of their actions affects their surroundings and in turn trigger responses from the agents. Once the links are reasonably well identified and quantified, it is possible to translate this system into a game.  Although we did not go that far during the course, some of the students had earlier constructed games based on their understanding at that time of Scotland case study. Some groups created board games, other computer games. And the results look astonishingly like Agricola, a strategy board game in which players embody farmers exploiting their land (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/31260/agricola).

Constructing such games can facilitate a clearer understanding of highly complex socio-ecological systems, and allow the development of insights to managing natural resources. The games, based on the description of the stakeholders’ understanding of the situation, their objectives and their needs, are one way by which participatory modelling might directly engage stakeholders in the decision-making process. Stakeholders can actually play such games to explore different management strategies and possible find solutions to resource management. We learn, and it’s fun!

What better way to link my enthusiasm for ecology and for board games?

Attendance ‘Bayesian population analyis using WinBUGS’-course

‘Don’t feign to be stupid.’ This well-chosen phrase of Marc Kéry introduced some of our group members to the world of Bayesian Statistics (where the use of your previous knowledge on the parameter you’re interested in, the prior distribution, plays a role). Together with Michael Schaub, Marc taught the inspiring course entitled ‘Bayesian population analysis using WinBUGS’ based on the book of the same name.

I was impressed by how they managed to cover almost the whole book within 5 days: starting with a gentle introduction to the analysis of distribution, abundance and population dynamics using a Bayesian framework, followed by an introduction to the software WinBUGS and implementation of mixed models in it, and finishing with some examples of the implementation of Integrated Population Models in WinBUGS. Lectures were alternated with useful exercises.

I think all the participants are after this course better trained in making a balanced decision whether they want to make use of the full knowledge they have, or use the veil of stupidity to make big discoveries (Schwartz, 2008).


Linking behavioural, physiological and demographic responses to climate change

Wandering albatross in flight (Photo: Mike Double)

There is an increasing body of evidence highlighting ecological alterations induced by climate change across the globe. Recently, Henri Weimerskirch and his colleagues showed that the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), a wide-ranging Sub-Antarctic seabird responded behaviourally, physiologically and demographically to changing wind patterns. This bird, which takes advantage of winds to reduce the flying cost, benefited from stronger winds and could cover more distance during foraging trips. Consequently, individuals increased in mass and had a higher reproductive success. Taking into consideration the potential changes in the environment is crucial to efficiently manage wild populations. Changes in the environment can be linked to demographic rates using behavioural and physiological traits as state variables. Using a trait-based model, we aim to investigate the effects of changes in foraging patterns and physiology, whether directly or indirectly induced by environmental changes, on the population dynamics of the wandering albatross. Quantifying movement and foraging patterns as a trait adds a new dimension to the existing trait-based modeling approaches. This model will enable us to (1) determine the most critical life history processes or pathways governing the population  persistence,  and  (2)  predict  population,  behavioural  and  phenotypic dynamics  under alternative climate change scenarios.


In collaboration with:

Tina Cornioley | PhD Student

Tina Cornioley

I am an ecologist combining population ecology, evolutionary ecology and animal movement analysis. Using a theoretical approach on field data, I aim to investigate the adaptive (plastic) phenotypic response of a population to environmental changes and the resulting population fluctuation. I am especially interested in determining behavioral (foraging movements) and physiological (body mass variation) responses and their effects on fitness. My current research focuses on the impact of climate changes on the population dynamic of the Wandering Albatross. Using tracking data, I identify changes in foraging movement as a response to climatic conditions and link movement changes to individuals’ body mass variation. My objective is then to build a demographic trait-based model in which life history traits of the population are explained by individuals’ 1) foraging movements and 2) body condition. Ultimately, these results can be used to make informed conservation decisions.



  • 2013-present, PhD student, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies,
    University of Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2011-2012, MSc in Environmental Economics and Environmental Management, University of York, UK
  • 2009-2011, MSc in Biology: Ecology and Evolution, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
  • 2006-2009, BSc in Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland



  • Cornioley T, Börger L, Ozgul A, Weimerskirch H (2016) Impact of changing wind conditions on foraging and incubation success in male and female wandering albatrosses. Journal of Animal Ecology
  • Cornioley T, Jenouvrier S, Börger L, Weimerskirch H, Ozgul A (2017) Fathers matter: male body mass affects life-history traits in a size-dimorphic seabird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B