4 things conservation scientists sometimes forget

entomologist collects moths from fur of three-toed sloth in Guyana

An entomologist collecting moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in Guyana. Like other science fields, conservation research is constantly evolving; meetings like the International Congress of Conservation Biology allow conservation scientists to come together and exchange ideas. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Call me an eco-nerd, but I think conservation brings together some of the coolest human beings on the planet. I get a little star-struck when I get to shake hands with Kent Redford or have a glass of wine with Robin Naidoo or hear Ana Rodrigues speak about her passion for researching the historical ecology of whales based on — of all things — ancient manuscripts written by monks.

Recently in Montpellier, France, I joined a group of Conservation International (CI) staff attending the International Congress of Conservation Biology, a meeting of more than 2,000 conservation scientists, students, researchers and practitioners from over 70 countries. Every two years, the conference convenes to present the latest research and developments in conservation science and practice.

Besides being inspired by some of my environmental heroes, I also was reminded of a few things that conservation scientists sometimes forget. Here are four of my biggest takeaways.

1.     Local context can make or break conservation success.

Over and over, we heard that contextual information about the social and political realities in which conservation is taking place is as important as — if not more important than — statistics about conservation success (or failure).

Duan Biggs, from the University of Queensland, provided an example from South Africa where illegal wildlife poaching and trade is increasing despite conservation efforts. This might be puzzling if not considered in the context of high population (4 million people surrounding Kruger National Park), high unemployment rate (25% in South Africa, and much higher locally), low incomes for those lucky enough to have a job (US$ 200 per month), and extremely high value of illegal wildlife (as Biggs put it, “Rhino horn is now worth more, per unit weight, than gold, diamonds or cocaine.”)

Further reading

2.     Emotions can be as powerful as scientific data.

Scientists like to think that research and data will help us find the Truth with a capital “T.” But when it comes to things like nature and its benefits to people, values and emotions come into play. People have different needs and preferences, and receive different benefits (and costs) from conservation programs.

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, told a story about a campaign to reduce littering along highways in Texas in the 1980s. The campaign included signs saying “Don’t Mess With Texas” — a phrase that has since become an unofficial motto of the state. The campaign succeeded in reducing litter by 72%, because it appealed to native Texans’ pride in their state — their values — rather than their environmental consciousness.

With the success of our Nature Is Speaking campaign, which uses provocative films voiced by celebrities to draw attention to the plight of the world’s ecosystems and what it means for humans, CI has experienced the power of the emotional appeal firsthand. I think the scientific community at large needs to be better at explicitly recognizing the role that people’s values can play in conservation work.

girl collecting water, Ethiopia

A girl collects water supplied by Bale Mountains National Park in south-central Ethiopia. Understanding how local people use the lands and waters where they live is critical to conservation success. (© Robin Moore)

3.     Experts are sometimes wrong, but groups are often right.

Have you ever watched a TV game show that allows the player to “call a friend” or “ask the audience”? The audience is usually right. The friend? Only sometimes.

When making decisions about conservation, there often isn’t enough time to collect all available evidence on a given topic, so we frequently have to rely on experts — colleagues or groups of people who, we hope, know more than we do. Unfortunately, research presented by Mark Burgman from the University of Melbourne shows that there is no correlation between how well an expert thinks he/she will perform on a question related to his/her area of expertise, and how well he/she actually performs.

For example, when estimating an unknown value — such as the number of invasive fish in a lake — it is hard to get an accurate number from a single expert. It is better to bring together a group of fish biologists (people with a basic understanding of the subject) and ask them four questions: the lowest possible value, the highest possible value, their best guess and their level of confidence in their answers. This provides information that is much more accurate than asking a single expert, or asking a group of experts a single question. This strategy could be applied in all sorts of conservation projects where data is lacking — such as assessing the level of threat to a species or the monetary value of a lake to the people living nearby.

butterflies on beach in Venezuela

A kaleidoscope of butterflies in Venezuela. (© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

4.     Scientists fight sometimes, and it’s fun to watch, but debate can get in the way of solutions.

The debate between advocates of “old” conservation (which values nature for its own sake) and “new” conservation (which values nature for its benefits to people) has been raging in environmental literature in recent years, and it continued at this meeting. On the first day of the conference, attendees watched Clive Spash from Vienna University of Economics and Business take on Peter Kareiva, gleefully dismantling his argument that partnering with corporations (“new” conservation) is an effective strategy. Spash argued that corporations are part of a flawed capitalist system and, therefore, cannot be part of the solution. He got a standing ovation.

I relish a healthy debate as much as the next scientist, but in this case, I wish someone had stood up and pointed out that it’s not an either/or. Partnering with corporations, as CI has done for many years, can be an incredibly successful strategy in the right context. Other approaches, such as government regulation and community-based conservation, can also be effective.

Achieving conservation, sustainable development and human well-being is going to require every tool in the box — as well as some new ones we haven’t invented yet. As Danielle Shanahan from the University of Queensland put it in her Twitter response to the debate, “Diverse societies require diverse solutions.”

Here’s what is not up for debate: There has never been a more critical time for conservationists to learn from each other — and to combine forces to protect and restore the planet on which we all depend.

Rachel Neugarten is a conservation scientist and the senior manager of conservation priority setting at CI. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


  1. Ken Wertz says

    Multiple approaches are a great idea. However, unless the cause is identified and dealt with, nothing of significance will change.
    The root problem is the very structure of the movers and shakers…Corporations. Unless they are dealt with directly and effectively, we will continue down the same path of destruction to all life on this planet. Corporations by their very nature are psychopathic. …and unfortunately, so are most corporate leaders. As an example… Try a Google search. FBI profiler compares a corporation to a psychopath. So, now, is it a wonder the planet is facing one of the largest extinctions in the history of the planet?
    Unless corporations are restrained, both morally and by law, there is little hope for us and the planet.

  2. Steve Drucker says

    “Emotions can be as powerful as scientific data”. MORE POWERFUL! We need to realize that more people make decisions based on FEELINGS THAN ON THINKING. This is why climate deniers and anti-nature groups are so successful – they prey on people’s fears. WE who love nature and wildlife and the future of this precious planet need to get into our guts and hearts and share with others, plus LISTEN and ask about THEIR experiences and fears and hopes and dreams. There’s an old saying I learned in Toastmaster’s: “FACTS TELL, BUT STORIES SELL!”

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