Let’s not have species and ecosystems paying for the mistakes of conservation organisations

Simon Black –

I am optimistic for the future of conservation and for the impact that dedicated professionals and committed communities can make for species, ecosystems and landscapes. Time and again I encounter individuals and teams who are doing fantastic work devising interventions which make a difference.

But we must remember, as leaders, that the best efforts of people are not enough, and may sometimes even be damaging. Instead it is our use of KNOWLEDGE and applying it to understanding what to change to enable improvement that really counts. This is not ‘knowledge for knowledge sake’ – it is not ‘research for our interest only’.

It is about being purposeful. Knowing what we want to achieve, understanding the method to achieve it (including how to test out the method) and knowing, through measurement, when we have accomplished our purpose (or at least if we are on the way to accomplishing it).

Thankfully there are professionals who are now exploring new ways of implementing initiatives, of working with key communities, of understanding how to accelerate the recovery of ecosystems. This is not easy work and often requires convincing others of new ways of operating – throwing off the suffocating security blankets of conservation goals, plans, strategies and techniques. But this is necessary, in order to cut through the blinkered thinking and bureaucracies which hamper progress or prevent innovative thinking.

Species and ecosystems eventually pay for the delays and mistakes of conservation, just as, in the observation of Deming, consumers and society pay for the mistakes and delays of industry through a reduced standard of living.

If we as conservation professionals rely on complex investment, planning, prioritisation, science, training and human resource strategies without focusing on the real issues that impact on improvement of ecosystems, then we risk wasting money, opportunity, influence and reputation. In the long term it will be species and ecosystems which pay.

Let us, as conservation leaders, take a better path to achieving conservation of the vital biodiversity that shares the planet with us.


Black SA, Copsey JA (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and
Dignity in Interdisciplinary Projects. Conserv Biol 28(5): 1139-1141.

Black SA, Copsey J (2014) Does Deming’s System of Profound
Knowledge Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open
Journal of Leadership 3: 53-65.

Coonan TJ, Schwemm,CA, & Garcelon DK (2010) Decline and recovery of the island fox: a case study for population recovery. Cambridge University Press.

Leslie SC, Blackett FC, Stalio M, Black SA (2017) Systems Behaviour Charts for Longitudinal Data Inform Marine Conservation Management. J Aquac Mar Biol 6(5): 00171. DOI: 10.15406/jamb.2017.06.00171

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbidge, A. A., Arnall, S., Garnett, S. T., Hayward, M. W., … & Possingham, H. P. (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5(4), 274-280.

Pungaliya AV, Black SA (2017) Insights into the Recovery of the Palila
(Loxioides bailleui) on Hawaii through Use of Systems Behaviour
Charts. International Journal of Avian & Wildlife Biology 2(1): 00007.

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.

Matching capability with purpose

Simon Black –

Any team needs to deliver the work that achieves its purpose. Getting people up to the right level of ability is important. This capability covers skills, awareness of the work, clarity on the goals and a sense of purpose that enables (i) prioritisation of effort, (ii) decision making and (iii) problem solving.


A recent study in Mauritius by Stebbings et al (2016) identified that operational teams made up of significant numbers of new starters (e.g. seasonal volunteers or incoming professionals) found that those new colleagues only achieved the desired level of performance part-way through the peak breeding seasons for working with endangered birds.

The arrangement for taking on new staff was historical and fitted a plan of when people would be at their busiest. However this study showed that taking people on earlier and training them to a higher level would make them more productive at the busiest times.


Stebbings, E. , Copsey, J. , Tatayah, V. , Black, S. , Zuël, N. and Ferriere, C. (2016) Applying Systems Thinking and Logic Models to Evaluate Effectiveness in Wildlife Conservation. Open Journal of Leadership, 5, 70-83. doi:10.4236/ojl.2016.53007.

Starting with little, to achieve something great

In conservation we are working in the business of change. We want to improve the situation for a species, or remove threats, or recover a landscape, or enable humans to co-exist  with a sustainable natural environment.

As humans within human society and as biologists working with species and ecosystems we need to recognise that change is not a cause-effect process. Instead we should think of it as an emergent property – an outcome of many interventions and interactions with the things we are concerned about and their wider environment.

It is almost inconceivable that a rhino has recently been killed in a French zoo by poachers for its horn . Yet this is an outcome from changes in the system – the the need for income by criminals, the demand for horn, the depletion in accessibility to alternative wild supplies (due to better wildlife protection). We need to truly understand the dynamics in order to eliminate the threat and this takes constant learning – what worked before might not be relevant today. This sometimes seems too much to tackle.

We cannot do everything today. So how do we start?

Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.The best processes of learning, improvement and innovation start small and grow big. This is also true in many cases within the conservation sector.

The Chatham Island Black Robin, Mauritius Kestrel and other species have been brought back from the brink by making initial steps, learning and continuing to make those steps. Start small and then build up. This strategy enables us to move fast and act, but most importantly learn, improve and upscale carefully. These examples are clearly not as complex or global as the system that impacts rhino conservation, but we must never be too afraid to learn how to innovate.


Further reading:

Gagliardo, R., Griffith, E., Mendelson, J., Ross, H., and Zippel, K. (2008). “The principles of rapid response for amphibian conservation, using the programmes in Panama as an example”. International Zoo Yearbook 42 (1): 125–135.

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.


Relevant links:




The only plan is to gain knowledge

Simon Black –

Traditional change management follows a linear approach, defining a goal, identifying a plan and delivering to that plan. The process is logical and surely unquestionable. However this is an example of linear thinking, which is rarely the appropriate way to consider complex conservation problems.

Ecosystems, landscapes, habitats, communities, species, populations do not act in a linear fashion, they are much more complex. This means that if you change one thing then something unexpected is likely to happen somewhere else – and what you had intended may or may not happen.

Of course understanding systems can be a difficult thing to do. Instead, managers either resort to ‘giving their view’ on things, or setting success measures based on those views. Having a view on why things are a problem is one thing, but  it is better to get knowledge by collecting data (Deming 1993; Seddon 2005).

It is better to define the following:

  • Purpose is the definition of why we are here, best understood from the species or ecosystem perspective.
  • Measures allow us to understand what is likely to happen in future if the system (including human community interactions, commercial industrial or agricultural land use, wildlife trade etc) doesn’t change.
  • Method – can be addressed when we understand the data derived from our measures.
Manatee deaths due to watercraft collisions in Florida. Knowing the occurrence level (Measure) can we do anything (Method) to reduce unnecessary mortality of manatees (Purpose)?

Systems Theory tells us that Purpose, Measures and Method are fundamentally linked – it is a systemic relationship. This systemic relationship can either work for you or against you depending on how you set things up.

The paradox is that in this system, change requires no plan. For Seddon, change is simply an emergent property. It can only occur if you set things up that enable people to innovate with interventions in response to the real system of species and ecosystems – what happens.

Any attempt to plan change otherwise is fiction.



Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Seddon, J. (2005). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.



Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (iii) Real improvement can be isolated from random noise

One of the most important things for conservation practitioners to be able to do is to detect real improvement (or real declines) from otherwise random changes for a species or ecosystem (Black and Copsey 2013).

Systems behaviour charts allow you to identify the difference between random changes and non-random changes -to see whether the ‘system’ has fundamentally changed if we use the rules summarised by Black (2015)

If we take the example of the recovery of Puerto Rican Parrots, initially managed by Snyder et al (1987) in the 1970s and 1980s, we see phases of the parrot population going up and down over time, some points above a mean line and some below (as you would expect).puerto-rican-parrots-chart

Where the pattern of data falls outside this expectation, the system has fundamentally changed. In the case of the Puerto Rican parrots, this occurred in 1978 and again more fundamentally in  1989. It even looks like a new breakthrough may follow on from 2009.

Even more important than the actual numbers however, is the insight from plotting natural limits and warning limits. For the parrots we see that although the population is generally improved it is not stable and could be expected throughout the 2000s to drop to less than 10 birds as much as rise to 65. Indeed today’s population could yet be vulnerable to extinction – with a projected lower natural limit appearing to be below zero using most recent year’s data .


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6 http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/787925

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

Snyder,N. F. R. , Wiley, J. W. and Kepler, C. B. (1987) The Parrots of Luquillo: Natural History and Conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot,Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Los Angeles, Calif, USA.

110 Success Stories for Endangered Species Day 2012: Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), March 2015, http://www.esasuccess.org/caribbean.shtml.

Endangered Species Act Works: Puerto Rican parrot Amazona vittata, 2015, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/esa works/caribbean.html.

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (ii) A moment in time…is never enough to understand the whole story

manatee-mortality-figureThe status of any situation cannot be best judged from an isolated point in time. It is also dangerous to judge one point in time versus another point in time (such as this year versus last year). Consider this in the case of a population of rare birds, or the status of your budget, or the number of volunteers in your organisation. The only meaningful understanding of a data point is where it sits in the context of the past, and ideally, the future. For example if we look at manatee boat-collision mortality (right) and we have an annual count of 50 manatee deaths, is that good., bad or indifferent?

Prediction of the future is one of the most important but elusive skills that a manager can possess. Of course no one can actually predict the future, but we can identify predictable elements, or degrees of predictability. The best methods for prediction are based on using empirical data. In management circles, rather than establishing complex predictive models, the most pragmatic approach is to establish a picture of the current system and then base expectations on the predictability of the patterns of data in that system. For example with the Florida Manatee (above) we see three (or four) systems  – a stable low level of collision deaths (to 1983), then a higher level from 1984-1997, then an unstable period 1997-1999, then a new system thereafter. You have to loo at the right system to understand what might happen next.

It is also unhelpful to define a level of performance as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They key thing is how to stabilise it and how to make it better. The system in the 1990s is driven by the higher numbers of watercraft on the river systems – so collisions are more likely. We cannot say things are worse than in the 1970s, just that the likelihood of collision deaths is greater – and we might want to do something about that (such as impose slower waterway speed limits).


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6 http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/787925

The only plan you need is to gain knowledge…

In conservation we are usually in the business of change – either changing the fortunes of a species, for example recovering a population, changing a landscape, changing the attitudes of people towards species and ecosystems, changing the impact of threats. The best leaders face these realities and then work out how to address the issues. This is an adaptive process, there may be no plan.

Warren Bennis talks about ‘mastery of the context’. You need to understand the context then work your way through it towards what you want to achieve.

John Seddon goes further – if you want to improve something do not build a plan. When you make a change the only plan should be to study the system – to get knowledge. That knowledge will inform you – you will be able to work out what you need to do. And working it out should not be based upon assumptions or experience of ‘how we did it before’. The working out requires the further acquisition of knowledge.

Once change is applied we should ask ‘is it working’ – and how do we find out? y seeking knowledge of the results.

This is, of course, the scientific process. In the scientific cycle we might experiment to test an idea, but we don’t plan far into the future assuming we know the outcome already. Rather we go through cycles of knowledge acquisition to enable us to make further decisions about action and testing. The investment in thought, resources and time is focused upon action-ing what is important. The time spent on ‘management’ (planning, delegating, setting targets, monitoring) is eliminated. Everyone is instead focused on the work.


Bennis W. (1989) On becoming a leader. Addison Wesley, Reading MA.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

How the last Montserrat ‘mountain chicken’ frogs could save their species

Simon Black –

The “mountain chicken” frogs on the Caribbean island of Montserrat are in a perilous and seemingly irredeemable situation. It’s worth questioning whether attempted recovery is even worth the effort. After all, this species, one of the world’s largest frogs, will have to recover from just two individuals.

Hunting, habitat destruction from the 1995 volcanic eruption, and the arrival of the recent fatal fungal infection, Chytridiomycosis (or “chytrid”), has devastated the population of these frogs.

Rarely has any species naturally recovered once reduced to a few individuals, without some sort of human assistance. The Seychelles kestrel is one exception. Species declines are largely caused by human activity, whether that be through direct killing, destruction of natural habitats, or the introduction of species like cats, rats or the chytrid fungus.

Mountain chicken frogs are surprisingly large. Jeff Dawson, Durrell
Sadly, even in recent times, extinctions occur in plain sight. China’s last Yangtze River dolphins, a male and a female, were separately held captive without being bred. Australia’s Christmas Island pipistrelle bat was confirmed extinct, frustratingly, during delayed attempts to rescue the last individuals. Similar late efforts failed to rescue the Po’ouli, a unique forest bird on Maui, Hawaii.

The lack of action in these cases was caused by bureaucracy, aversion to risk, politics, misplaced priorities, and professional bias; human rather than biological factors. Thankfully, other examples demonstrate a better way.

Bringing a species back from near-extinction

North America’s black-footed ferret was thought lost in the 1980s until several were discovered in Wyoming, which inspired a recovery programme. The California condor was reduced to 27 individuals sparking a controversial, but successful, captive-breeding initiative.

The Chatham Islands black robin: rescued from a single pair. leonberard/flickr, CC BY

In New Zealand, the Chatham Islands black robin was rescued from a single breeding pair. On Mauritius, once the island of extinction, the local kestrel was considered a lost cause by the mid 1970s and was then the rarest bird in the world, yet decades later the population has been recovered by active management and now hundreds of pairs of birds live free on the island.

These cases required pioneering innovations, such as double-clutching (removing eggs to encourage pairs to breed again), using common species as adoptive parents, and training captive-bred animals for wild release. Leaders such as Don Merton, Tom Cade, Noel Snyder and Carl Jones shared ideas with colleagues across continents, fuelling knowledge and experimentation. Actually getting on with the work is important. For Jones, too many people “talk about conservation…but we’ve got to do it rather than talk about it”.

Rare species are not just an interesting entry in the catalogue of life. They have a function in the natural world. Amphibians are important in controlling insects and other invertebrates. In Montserrat, for instance, some farmers have noticed increased levels of crop pests since the frogs disappeared.

In practice, action first means setting short-term goals. For the mountain chicken frog, this involves moving the female into the male’s territory, building artificial nests, and protecting locations from threats.

The work must also pursue a long-term vision. A sustainable wild population of frogs means that captive-breeding, already undertaken in bio-secure facilities, is not the sole answer. Threats like chytrid need to be understood first to inspire possible solutions. The disease will not disappear just by increasing the numbers of frogs (though frog population is of course critical).

Fieldwork requires painful attention to detail, literally sitting with the animals to prevent disturbances, then monitoring offspring survival, assessing and carefully improving habitats, and moving individuals to new, safe locations. Conservationists need patience and determination to overcome disappointments. They must seek to understand changing circumstances, keep open to ideas and be willing to develop new approaches if things do not go well. Carl Jones suggests that recovery requires about 20 breeding cycles. That means 20 years for species that breed annually. Improved understanding can however, accelerate recovery.

Recent efforts in the US with the California Channel Islands fox restored a handful of surviving individuals to a thriving population in just a decade. The near-extinct Mauritius kestrel bounced back to a free-living population from just four birds. India’s unique pygmy hog was reintroduced after successful breeding of a few animals taken from the wild. Conservation is getting smarter and more effective.

So on Montserrat, people must act fast while hope remains. A sustainable frog population must be a priority. If people carefully use their knowledge, this extraordinary giant, the mountain chicken frog might withstand threats of disease and habitat pressure on its tiny, volcanic island home.

The original version of this article appeared in The Conversation



Targets only motivate people to meet the target (not to do good conservation work)

Simon Black – 

The reasons for employing people are:

1) to do the work (produce output, product, service), and

2) to improve the work.

If the person is clear about the purpose of their work, then 1 and 2 should be easy to deliver if they have the right resources, skills, and understanding of users’ (e.g. customers) needs.

But managers rarely leave it at that…

Traditionally, managers get people to do ‘better’ in their work by what John Seddon tags as ‘sweating the labour’ – getting the people to work harder or faster. The idea is that you get more output for the same hours work – essentially more for the cost (efficiency).

Of course the idea of the sweatshop is morally uncomfortable – exploitation to achieve a profit motive. Yet we still stick to the idea by setting targets: ‘You produced 100 widgets last month, let’s have you aim for 110 widgets this month‘.

It seems plausible – motivational even! What possibly could be the harm in setting a target?

Well, the widgets are being created for a purpose – presumably the purpose for which the customer buys them. And that purpose is associated with the design and quality if production in the widget that is produced.

If you create arbitrary targets (and measures of performance) you will create a de facto purpose in people’s mind which is to deliver those targets. This is different from actually delivering the purpose of the work.

Your worker will work to produce 110 widgets BUT not necessarily a widget that meets the customer needs, nor a widget that could be produced faster or at lower cost whilst still meeting the customers needs, other than by cutting corners (lowering quality or increasing risk). The worker is busy but has got his eye off the ball. This produces errors and lowers the quality of work – which will probably have to be redone – at greater cost.

Targets are not motivational. They might make people move, but that is not motivation. A dog that moves is just one looking to avoid the next kick. It is not a motivated, free thinking, creative, proactive animal. Why would we exect people to operate any differently?


Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.