Meet Audubon California’s New Executive Director, Dr. Madhavi Colton

A global journey to conservation leadership,

Audubon California Executive Director Madhavi Colton Photo: Madhavi Colton

What in your background led you to a career in life sciences? Why marine conservation? 

 From mountains to deserts to oceans, wild places have always called to me, and I was lucky to live in a variety of places as I was growing up. I was raised in Australia, but we moved around a lot, including a year in a small village in the state of Maharastra, India, and nine months in a less-than-wild Santa Monica. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was in high school for what was supposed to be one year, but never left. After a month-long, high school backpacking trip to the high Sierra, I knew I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to protect the places that inspired me and the creatures that rely on them. I studied biology because I believe that when we understand how our ecosystems function, we can make better decisions to protect them. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I studied desert plant communities in Death Valley National Park, which helped me fall in love with our state’s haunting arid regions.    

But the oceans have always called to me. It’s hard to be Australian and not grow up on the beach! Oceans are perhaps the only ecosystem shared by a majority of countries. I was drawn to marine biology in grad school because marine conservation requires collaboration and compromise between governments, communities, and individuals. Millions of people around the world depend on marine resources for food and income, so in a lot of places, saying, “Don’t fish” simply isn’t an option. Instead, we have to find ways to help ensure that fishing is sustainable. Work in conservation in any habitat involves collaborating with communities to figure out what will work not just for wildlife, but for them, their children, and their children’s children.  

How has being a woman affected your career? 

Overall, I feel very fortunate to live when and where I do. I know plenty of women in the generation ahead of me who had a very tough time as scientists, and I know that it can be very difficult for women to follow STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers in other countries. 

What part of your job do you enjoy most?  

 I love bringing people together to solve some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.  

For example, I led a project working with researchers to figure out whether coral evolution could keep pace with climate change. I had a well-known professor contact me to tell me that my project was impossible in the timeframe I proposed due to data limitations. Despite his skepticism, we pulled it off in nine months.  

It's also satisfying when my work benefits human communities and wild places at the same time. I supported a team in Honduras that was tackling water quality issues. We were able to get a wastewater treatment plant connected to homes and businesses up and running. As a result, the nearby public beach began to meet US EPA safe swimming standards – a first for any developed area in Honduras, and with an obvious benefit to the nearby reef communities. 

Throughout my career, I’ve been so lucky to get to call SCUBA diving “work” and to visit many fascinating places that are out of reach to tourists. I once spent most of a day sitting under a mango tree in Indonesia speaking with a village chief about marine ecology and conservation. I spent a month living on an island covered in Great Penguins – we had to have someone walk in front of our vehicle at night to shoo them out of the road.  And I’ve seen some amazing things – kelp forests in California, a pod of 10,000 dolphins in the East Santa Barbara Channel, juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagles learning to hunt in south-eastern Australia, and giant sea bass at Anacapa Island. 

 Is the transition from fish to birds a big leap? 

Not really. No matter which ecosystem you work in, conservation faces similar sets of challenges. How do we make sure that local people have the information they need to manage their resources through time? How do we ensure that the people most affected by policymakers have a seat at the table as those policies are drawn up? How do we translate science into effective management actions and policy? 

The research I’ve led over the past six years shows that ecosystems can adapt to the effects of climate change, and that evolutionary responses are most likely when individual populations are connected to each other across large areas. That goes for human populations, and Audubon's Migratory Bird Initiative has shown that's true for birds, as well. California is a critical stopping point for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. You can use the Bird Migration Explorer to see the massive numbers of birds that funnel through our state during their spring and fall migrations. If we can keep our state healthy for birds, we don’t just support thriving wildlife in California, we also contribute to thriving populations from Alaska to South America.  

Also, after years of commuting internationally, I have to confess that it’s wonderful to have my work close to home again, back in the place that first sparked my interest in conservation. 

What do you see as the main issues facing California from a conservation perspective? What should Audubon California’s priorities be? 

That’s easy: Water, water, water and climate change – they’re intertwined! Climate change is already pummeling California, as we’ve seen in recent years with worsening drought, heat and the resulting wildfires. Especially in a landscape as managed as ours, we have to find solutions that allow people and wildlife to thrive. California has a reputation for setting precedents and finding solutions that can be replicated elsewhere, so what we do here at home can reverberate across the country and around the world.   

Because this is Audubon, we’re not letting you escape without telling us your favorite bird.

The Brown Pelican. I’ve always loved how primeval they look, more like a pterosaur than a seabird as they skim over the surface of the waves. They’re also an emblem of sorts for the work I do; an emissary between sea, land and sky, bridging worlds and ecosystems to survive. As the world grows hotter and more complicated, we all need to think in those terms. 

How you can help, right now