Accelerating conservation: can we learn from other sectors?

Can conservation learn from other sectors? Do we have the capacity to teach oursleves new wasy of designing, testing and improving the way we do conservation work? Good disciplines of management can be learned from other sectors; we just have to apply them in our work in the field, in zoos, and in collaborations with scientific institutions, governments and communities. It all starts with they way that we, as leaders, think – the assumptions we hold and the frameworks we use as the basis for our decision-making, planning, problem solving and interaction with other people.

We need to work smarter in order to keep up with the acceleration of pressure on natural resources which is driven by population growth and industrial development. Is this possible?

Dramatic turnarounds with species like the Mauritius Kestrel and Echo Parakeet have been shown to be possible. It is a question of learning. Some species, such as the Seychelles Kestrel have been shown to have recovered without human intervention – what can we learn from that?

To achieve more successful conservation we need to bridge the science-practitioner gap (Game et al., 2013). The latest developments in Mauritius are one example where deep scientific knowledge of the genetics of the Echo Parakeet now inform practical interventions to repopulate new habitats across the island with genetically robust birds (Tollington et al., 2013). Linking work to conservation goals is a leadership challenege rather than a scientific one.

It is still often found that projects, despite available expertise and resource, are hampered either by people rigidly sticking to outdated plans of action, or by being allowed to drift off course due to the pursuit of ill-conceived goals. These are symptoms of a hesitant or uninformed management approach. Science cannot provide the answers to these problems (Clark and Reading, 1994), but better leadership can guide people towards a better way of doing things.


A fuller version of this article is available in:

Black S.A. (2014) Can we engineer an exponential growth in conservation impact? Solitaire 25: 3-5. Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey. ISSN 2053-1087.


Other reading:

Game, E.T., Meijaard, E., Sheil, D., McDonald-Madden, E. (2013). Conservation in a wicked complex world; challenges and solutions. Conservation Letters 7 (3): 271-277

Martin, T. G., S. Nally, A. A. Burbridge, S. Arnall, S. T. Garnett, M.W. Hayward, L. F. Lurnsden, P. Menkhorst, E. McDonald-Madden, and Possingham, H. P. (2012) Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters 5:274–280.

Tollington, S., Jones, C.G., Greenwood, A., Tatayah, V., Raisin, C., Burke, T., Dawson, D.A., Groombridge, J.J. (2013) Long-term, fine-scale temporal patterns of genetic diversity in the restored Mauritius parakeet reveal genetic impacts of management and associated demographic effects on reintroduction programmes. Biological Conservation 161:28-38.



Simon Black – 

It is easy to consider ‘change’ as a slow and often difficult process. After all, humans are creatures of habit, enjoying the comfort of the familiar. Human beings are, however, creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting; changing our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to influence what is around us, to find ways to make things better or different. This is why we work in conservation – we choose to make a difference, to change decline into recovery, to protect rather than over-exploit resources or ignore vulnerable species.

In particular, in conservation we have an urgency to act (Martin et al 2012). We need to see change happen in noticeable timescales; sometimes in weeks and months not years. If we want people to believe in the changes we want, then they need to be able to see those changes. Paradoxically, we need to be realistic that population recovery or habitat renewal may take decades. Sometimes we are constrained by natural systems (e.g. lifecycles and breeding seasons) and sometimes we are constrained by having to change people’s attitudes and priorities.


So, what is the challenge? We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In terms of the latter,  Herrero (2006) suggests that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short timeframes, then something is wrong. Small sets of changes, taken on and shared by groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread. This might mean sharing data or practice or supporting tests and experiments, giving feedback or insights or sharing and developing personnel.


To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes. This might mean adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. For example, the way that we set goals and focus people on purposeful work (to save species and ecosystems) should be influenced by urgency and purposefulness. We should have different types of conversations with team members, funders and stakeholders, focused upon the things are being done to achieve successful conservation outcomes. We need to have honesty about what works and what does not work, what is an obstacle and what might be a potential solution. We need to be open to stepping outside our own technical preferences in order to find effective solutions.


Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbridge, A. A., et al. (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5, 274-280.