New paradigms needed for managing conservation change

Simon Black –

Traditional conservation practice follows a couple of familiar paradigms.

The first involves an enthusiast taking up a cause, for a particular species or landscape. that enthusiasm maybe a scientific professional, a lay person with a personal interest , or a local community member. Progress is reliant on the wit and wisdom of that individual and their ability to gather together the necessary resources and support to make things happen. Progress may take weeks, month, years, decades. I have seen this with individual scientists following lone paths in places like Hong Kong, Assam, Madagascar, Comores, Oman, and the Cayman Islands. It is a path well trodden by well-known individuals like Dian Fossey, Gerald Durrell, Tom Cade, and Peter Scott. it is admirable and without exception reliant on determination and a long term view.

A second paradigm is where better-organisaed and resources NGOs or government departments take up the mantle of work using their own infrastructure and methods. This is a ‘conservation plus’ approach which takes the form of time bound period of work (driven by funding cycles) which is generally called ‘a project’, or if a series of funding cycles can be strung together into a coherent, long-term approach ‘a programme’. this is the most common form of conservation work. The excellent work with the California Channel Island fox is a good example.

A third form of approach has emerged as NGOs and governments have realised the need for long term interventions, most easily observed in USA ESA  species such as the California Condor or black-Footed Ferret, but also in successful programmes on the coastal and oceanic islands of New Zealand and programmes on mainland Australia.

As larger-scale landscape approaches are recognised as important, the long-term model has been broadened to supply a funding infrastructure or socio-economic system that enables long term recover and incentives to establish new landscape and species protection. These large-scale approaches are observed in the Atlantic forest states of Brazil with water catchment and reforestation initiatives involving private landowners and land users across a mosaic landscape.

These types of systemic approach which establish human use of natural landscapes within certain ‘acceptable’ parameters (e.g. sustainability or biodiversity recovery) offer a dramatic shift in how we as humans can re-engage with the natural world.

However it is not enough. Emergency action is still required – recovering populations, preventing poaching, breaking illegal trade, halting forest destruction. These all require major change and interventions which will make a dramatic difference.

Unfortunately the traditional project management mindset will never deliver the required speed of change. Project management is the poorest method for delivering change (especially change that requires a shift in psychology of key stakeholders). Project management is alos applicable where a known design and outcome is specified – yet in conservation the complexity of ecosystems, socio-economic systems and species behaviour is rarely predictable.

A different approach is required – and conservation managers need to be ready to take it on.

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