Can we save the tiger with mathematics?

Eve McDonald-Madden

Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/

The University of Queensland

Turning to mathematics to allow us to make smarter conservation decisions.

The diversity of life on Earth underpins the global economy. But we’re losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate and human-induced climate change will threaten more species—up to 37 per cent of the plants and animals with which we share the world.

Dr Eve McDonald-Madden is doing something about it. She’s recognised that, despite the urgency of the problem, the funds and resources to tackle the problem are limited. So she’s turned to mathematics to develop systems that allow us to make smarter conservation decisions.

Working at The University of Queensland and CSIRO, she has already helped to develop and implement a policy for monitoring the Sumatran tiger to prevent poaching. In addition, she has come up with a strategy for managing Tasmanian devils as they confront an infectious facial tumour disease.

In short, Eve McDonald-Madden has become a world expert on making effective conservation decisions when information is limited.

Her achievements have won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship and, with its assistance, she will travel to France with her young son to learn about and incorporate the latest techniques of artificial intelligence (AI) into her decision-making frameworks.

Off to a flying start
Flying foxes helped Eve McDonald-Madden recognise what she wanted to do with her life. She was studying the foraging behaviour of grey-headed flying foxes as a team leader at Victoria’s Arthur Rylah Institute of Environmental Research.

The flying foxes had become a real problem. Tens of thousands of them had made their home in Melbourne’s iconic Botanic Gardens. They were beginning to overburden and ruin the important collection of trees and other plants. As a native species, they couldn’t simply be exterminated. Decisions as to how to handle them had to be made as quickly as possible, and data was limited.

“It opened my eyes as to what you really needed to know to aid conservation,” Eve says. “And that basically boiled down to numbers—being quantitative—and being able to use what data you had to come up with good decisions.”

“But I also realised there were limitations in people’s understanding of quantitative approaches—not only in knowing how much information they needed, but what techniques they could use to analyse and get the most out of the information they had.”

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As she came to her realisation of the importance of structured decision-making based on sophisticated data analysis, Eve also recognised that she needed to improve her skills.  So, while working full-time, she enrolled in a Diploma of Mathematics and Statistics via distance education at the University of New England. And, in the process of educating herself, Eve discovered a love of maths.

The next step was to get involved in learning about and generating improved environmental decision-making tools, and the most obvious way to achieve that was to do a PhD. But who should be her supervisor? Asking around, the field quickly narrowed to one person, Prof Hugh Possingham at The University of Queensland, who holds a joint chair in biological sciences and mathematics.

Eve began work with him in 2005 and has been with him ever since. Eve is now a chief investigator in two research centres of which he is director—the ARC Centre for Excellence in Environmental Decisions and the National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions Hub. She also works one day a week at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences.

“We can’t delay decisions until we have enough data to make the best management decisions. My research focuses on helping make better conservation decisions faster by analysing the trade-offs between available dollars, our need for information, and the urgency of the conservation issue at hand.”

Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/

Eve has been so successful at working to plug that gap, that recently she was lead author of a paper in Nature Climate Change. It presented a pragmatic decision framework for determining when, if ever, to move species in the face of climate change.

“I don’t go into the field any more. For me, spending more money and time on collecting more information is a waste unless you can quickly use that information to make good decisions. I take data that other people have collected on species of concern and use it to derive optimal strategies for managing those species. So I sit at a computer.”

“As a L’Oréal Fellow I will take a novel approach to finding these solutions by turning to AI. What we need now are approaches that are fully dynamic, that allow you to adapt and optimise your decisions as you go along. And some of those approaches, the ones that deal with much higher levels of complexity and uncertainty, fall within the field of artificial intelligence, where they have been applied in a variety of tasks including robotics, web-based information gathering, and spacecraft mission control.”

Along the way Eve’s managed to fit in motherhood too and, although she might spend most of her time in front of a computer, she and her partner are still avid kayakers. So, motherhood permitting, she occasionally gets to enjoy the fruits of her labours—exploring a quiet bush inlet along the east coast of Australia.


2008 – PhD (Integrative biology), The University of Queensland

2005 – Diploma in The Sciences (Mathematics and Statistics), University of New England

2001 – Honours, Bachelor of Science (Behavioural Ecology), The University of Melbourne

1999 – Bachelor of Science (Ecology and Environmental Science), The University of Melbourne

Career highlights, awards, fellowships, grants

2011-2017 – ARC Centre for Excellence in Environmental Decisions (CEED), one of fourteen Chief Investigators

2011-2014 – Chief Investigator, National Environmental Research Program Terrestrial Biodiversity Research Hub (RHED)

2010-2013 – ARC Discovery Grant, “The role of learning in conservation management: developing adaptive approaches for the conservation of biodiversity in a changing climate”, awarded to Possingham, H.P. & McDonald-Madden, E.

2010-present – Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

2009-present – Postdoctoral Fellow, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems

2009-2010 – Queensland State Government International Fellowship

2008- 2009 – Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Queensland

2008 – Queensland Smart Women Smart State Awards, Highly Commended Postgraduate Students Science Category

2007 – University of Queensland Graduate School Research Travel Grant

2007 – Best Student Poster, School of Integrative Biology Poster Session

2007 – Best Student Presentation, Modelling and Simulation Society Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand

2006-2008 – Pest Animal Cooperative Research Centre Postgraduate Grant

2006-2008 – University of Queensland Postgraduate Research Scholarship

2002-2005 – Technical Officer, Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment

Research highlights

  • A total of 27 peer-reviewed journal articles published, including papers in the high-impact journals Nature and Science, the latter being one of 12 first author
  • 14 presentations at Australian and international conferences, including 4 invited conference and seminar presentations

Top five publications

McDonald-Madden, E., Baxter, P.W.J., Fuller, R.A., Martin, T.G., Game, E.T., Montambault, J., & Possingham, H.P. (2011) Monitoring does not always count, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25:547-550. (Impact factor 11.6; 2 citations)

Fuller, R.A., McDonald-Madden, E., Wilson, K.A., Carwardine, J., Grantham, H.S., Watson, J.E.M., Klein, C.J., Green, D.C. & Possingham, H.P. (2010) Replacing underperforming protected areas achieves better conservation outcomes, Nature 466:365-367. (Impact factor 34.5; 7 citations)

McDonald-Madden, E., Gordon, A., Wintle, B., Grantham, H., Walker, S., Carvalho, S., Bottrill, M., Joseph, M., Ponce, R., Stewart, R. & Possingham, H.P. (2009) “True” conservation progress, Science 323:43-44. (Impact factor 31.1; 7 citations)

McDonald-Madden, E., Bode, M., Game, E.T., Grantham, H. & Possingham, H.P. (2008) The need for speed: informed land acquisitions for conservation in a dynamic property market, Ecology Letters 11, 1169-1177. (Impact factor 10.3; 10 citations)

Chadès, I., McDonald-Madden, E., McCarthy, M.A., Wintle, B., Linkie, M. & Possingham, H.P. (2008) When to stop managing or surveying cryptic threatened species, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 105:13936-13940. (Impact factor 9.4; 15 citations)


Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/
Eve McDonald Madden, The University of Queensland (credit: L’Oréal Australia/