Knowledge and Conservation Leadership

Simon Black – 

Knowledge is one of the least understood areas of conservation management interventions. As scientists we are obsessed with facts and knowledge. We discuss knowledge assuming it is a black and white issue; science provides the facts, the rest is hogwash.

Of course, knowledge is actually subjective rather than objective. The adage that we know ‘how many badgers are in the woods’ as a concrete fact ignores the fluidity of a badger population. Births, deaths, migrations. What we knew yesterday may be completely inaccurate today.

Similarly, people’s belief in something can have a huge impact on concrete objective behaviour, however ‘irrational’ that behaviour may be perceived by the ‘objective’ scientist. Cultural traditions, taboos and religious beliefs are examples of these contradictions.

This is important when we consider project design and interventions.

I have worked on some projects where reliance on subjective memories, observations and opinions is critical. Some species are so cryptic, or their range s so far-reaching and remote that scientific decision making is reliant on the views of local people.

As a leader one option in the knowledge management toolbox should be kept in consideration: ‘With good data management and systematic project design, the accumulation of anecdotes becomes data of scientific value.’

Knowledge runs on a continuum form belief, through to concrete scientific fact. In conservation we often operate at the uncertain end of the spectrum.

This has implications in how we lead. For example if we have a failure or a mistake is made, do we consider whether it gives us knowledge to help future improvement? In conservation this is often swept under the carpet. In other industries, such as aerospace, construction, motor vehicle production, nuclear power generation and the military, mistakes and failure are seen as crucial to future improvement and avoidance of future failure.

In healthcare and social change, interventions based on difficult to define social constructs, social norms and beliefs are fundamental.

In conservation we need to embrace an understanding of the value of all realms of knowledge and through study understand the improvement of natural systems all the more effectively.


Black S.A. (2019) Assessing Presence, Decline and Extinction for the Conservation of Difficult-to-Observe Species in F Angelici and l. Rossi (eds) Problematic Wildlife Volume II. In press

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership 3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Catalano, A. S., Redford, K., Margoluis, R., & Knight, A. T. (2018). Black swans, cognition, and the power of learning from failure. Conservation biology32(3), 584-596.