BACKGROUND: Portfolio effects were first described as a basis for mitigating against financial risk by diversifying investments. Distributing investment across several different assets can stabilize returns and reduce risks by statistical averaging of individual asset dynamics that often correlate weakly or negatively with each other. The same simple probability theory is equally applicable to complex ecosystems, in which biological and environmental diversity stabilizes ecosystems against natural and human-mediated perturbations. Given the fundamental limitations to how well the full complexity of ecosystem dynamics can be understood or anticipated, the portfolio effect concept provides a simple framework for more critical data interpretation and pro-active conservation management. Applied to conservation ecology purposes, the portfolio effect concept informs management strategies emphasizing identification and maintenance of key ecological processes that generate complexity, diversity and resilience against inevitable, often unpredictable perturbations. IMPLICATIONS: Applied to the reciprocal goal of eliminating the least valued elements of global biodiversity, specifically lethal malaria parasites and their vector mosquitoes, simply understanding the portfolio effect concept informs more cautious interpretation of surveillance data and simulation model predictions. Malaria transmission mediated by guilds of multiple vectors in complex landscapes, with highly variable climatic and meteorological conditions, as well as changing patterns of land use and other human behaviours, will systematically tend to be more resilient to attack with vector control than it appears based on even the highest quality surveillance data or predictive models. CONCLUSION: Malaria vector control programmes may need to be more ambitious, interpret their short-to-medium term assessments of intervention impact more cautiously, and manage stakeholder expectations more conservatively than has often been the case thus far.