The Conservation Leadership Choice – a Future For Nature and For Ourselves

Simon Black – 

The Earth faces a crisis of environmental degradation and climate change: Carbon emissions, population growth and demand for energy, infrastructure, products and food.

We are a wasteful and self-obsessed species dominating a finite planet. The decline of ecosystems appears inevitable and unstoppable. Unlike us other species in our complex web of life do not have a spokesperson for their interests, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation for our human sake.

I often emphasise to conservation professionals that as professionals they must focus their work on “what matters to species and ecosystems”.

We are part of the ecosystems which we inhabit.

If we destroy natural resources, we destroy ourselves. This is illogical and immoral both in its effect on the species around us and on future human generations. Our challenge is to understand how we can co-exist with nature by addressing two drivers of change.

  • First, we need the positive efforts of the few people who have necessary technical skills to transform wild ecosystems.
  • Second, we need to divert the negative impact of the millions of us human consumers (who create the problem in the first place) and reverse our psychological separation from the natural world.
Simon Black image
Snapshots in time: (a) Round Island (1960), 22.5 km off the north coast of Mauritius, prior to the removal of European rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus and goats Capra aegagrus and multispecies restoration efforts. Note limited vegetation and evidence of extreme soil erosion. (b) A similar spot on Round Island (2014). Note the recovery of more diverse plant life, which now provides important habitats for native seabirds and endemic reptiles, including Telfair’s skink Leiolopisma telfairii, once widespread across Mauritius and now restricted to three offshore islands

Our urban populations need to re-engage with nature. In the past, cities were nature-free, with wildlife limited to cultivated parks, sports fields and private back yards. The most interesting places in cities for wildlife included waste ground, refuse tips, abandoned waterways and grave yards; urban wildlife by default. New thinking is required to consciously make a place for wildlife in our cities and to shape people’s expectations of nature in the human world.

We all have a part to play – how we live, what we want, where we live. Many of us, especially in the richer and developing nations, should think less about what we want and instead pursue what we need; clean water, sustainable food sources, clean air, a healthy landscape, security. We also need to appreciate that people living on the fringes of wild landscapes have the same needs, whether urban, agricultural, pastoral, subsistence or nomadic. As humans we must coexist with the landscape and the mix of species within it.

I am confident that replanted forests will survive in the high mountains of the Hawaiian Islands as a home for their unique endemic bird species. Wild boar, deer, pine martens and red squirrels will frequent the woodlands of southern England and feature in the conversations of people in the local pub. Sea turtles will return to nest on previously abandoned, human-cluttered beaches, delighting local people on Indian ocean islands like Reunion and Mauritius. New woodlands, walnut groves and fruit tree plantations will be established in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Old methods of shepherding will continue to emerge in France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in response to the previously unthinkable, but manageable presence of wolves.

I am confident that if we share these successes and inspire our neighbours, the past 40 years of practical conservation effort and learning across the globe will not be squandered. Our agricultural economy can adapt. Our consumer behaviour can shift enough to reduce production pressure, transport and waste. Our ingenuity will devise technologies which will reduce the impact and drivers of climate change.

We have a future alongside nature, retaining both the wild places and the commonly encountered species that have inspired humanity throughout our existence. It is an act of leadership to make efforts which will have a real impact on retaining and restoring nature’s place on the planet.


Drawn from a previous article:

Black S.A. (2019) Choosing a Future for Nature and for Ourselves. Fifteen Eighty Four: Academic Perspectives from Cambridge University Press

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.

The Role of Optimism in Conservation Leadership

Simon Black –

Sometimes, to keep getting the work done you need to have a optimistic outlook, as illustrated in current work recovering bird species on Maui in Hawaii.

A visionary conservation leader needs to look beyond current problems and threats and see what is possible. Indianapolis prizewinner Carl Jones contends that even at the outset of his work with the most endangered of species in Mauritius, he never thought that they would not succeed.

It is an optimisim that drives action, and is centred on pragmatism – what needs to be done (Beever, 2000). However the pragmatism is not about compromise. More of a way of finding what can be done, of learning from failure.

It is a mistake to think that we can imagine and model the perfect solution for wildlife. It is also wrong to expect that humans will never change their perspective on the world, the right place to live, what to eat, how to use natural resources. there are huge challenges, but we all have common interests. It takes a humble person to find out the needs of others.

In conservation the temptation is to set out on a scientific path, pressing forward for our species of concern. But sometimes we need to step back and identify what those species really need. That will give us insight into new solutions.

A really important step is to accept failures as learning opportunities.  If we are prepared to accept what works and what does not work and learn, we are likely to accelerate conservation improvements. It is an optimism that positive lessons can be learned from negative outcomes. Let’s not brush failure under the carpet.

Of course optimism is not just blind faith. We need to learn how to better show the advances and improvements that conservation work can deliver. This may mean learnign new ways to understand, present, and discuss the real changes that can be achieved through human effort. Hope has to be placed in reality (Swaisgood and Sheppard, 2010).

It is in everyone’s interest to be optimistic.


Beever, E. (2000). Diversity: The Roles of Optimism in Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology, 14(3), 907-909.

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Purpose, processes, knowledge and dignity are missing links in interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology  28 (5): 1139-1141 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Swaisgood, R. R., & Sheppard, J. K. (2010). The culture of conservation biologists: Show me the hope!. BioScience, 60(8), 626-630.

Carl Jones: 2016 Indianapolis prizewinner

When the ‘purpose’ of work is forgotten…peril and failure

Simon Black –

Probably the most fundamental aspect of leadership is to keep yourself and your team focused on the purpose of your work (Black et al, 2013; Black 2015).

Although this might seem obvious, it is actually very easy to be distracted. Sometimes it is the distraction of personal ambition, the needs of stakeholders (including one’s managers), ‘interesting work’ and so on.

The black-spotted turtles were released in Indus River near Kalar Goth on Monday morning. PHOTO: EXPRESS Here is a stark example of a lack of focus on purpose (conserving black-spotted turtles) leading to a mess up, exacerbated by (probably) panic and further blatant negligence (reported by witnesses). This did little for the turtles or the people charged with protecting them.

  1. Turtles were rescued from illegal smuggling (purposeful).
  2. They were taken to a release site, the Indus river (purposeful).
  3. The turtles stored in an office so that the release could be photographed the next day (a plausible approach to publicity, but not purposeful).
  4. The turtles died in the bags, or during handling (negligence).
  5. The bodies were discarded into the river (negligence).

All could have been avoided with either:

(i) a night-time release (if animals were healthy / disease free).

(ii) quarantine or pre-release in the pool facility which had been used on previous occasions

Both (i) and (ii) are purposeful – to conserve the turtles.

The opposite to negligence is diligence – leaders and team members must be diligent in their focus on the true and valuable purpose of work.

Read the article here:

Further reading:

SA Black, Groombridge, J.J. and Jones, C.G. (2013) Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness. ISRN Biodiversity, Article ID 784701

Black, S.A. (2015) A clear purpose is the Start Point for Conservation Leadership. Conservation Letters.  8 (5): 383–384. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12203

A start point for Strategy is TOWS not (SWOT)

Many of us will be familiar with the use of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis when initially defining strategy. Practitioners like Michael Watkins have argued that traditional SWOT analysis gets people to consider organizational strengths and weaknesses, but end up in “abstract, navel-gazing discussions about ‘what are we good at’ and ‘what are we bad at‘”. In other words, the SWOT exercise becomes rather un-purposeful and delivers less than useful outcomes.

SWOT pic
Michael Watkins suggest you should consider the external environment first before defining your own capability

Watkins himself suggests that we start in the reverse order looking at THREATS and OPPORTUNITIES first because it gets people to consider the external environment first.

John Seddon would call this looking at things from the ‘outside in’ and from a systems perspective this makes complete sense. You should not design organisations, or  plans or strategies on the basis of what the plan should be like, but instead design in on the basis of the demands and needs that it must meet.

In other words, the relevant strengths and weaknesses of an organisation must be related to the actual demands, threats, constraints and opportunities which the organisation must face.

Apparently according to Watkins the only reason SWOT is presented as such is because the acronym is memorable and stuck. Again, management fad-ism seems to have overtaken sensible consideration of method (how you run a strategic development process)!

Remember when you conduct your SWOT  – or more correctly TOWS analysis start by using your knowledge of threats and opportunities – defined by real data, including the performance achieved by the organisation and the demands. threats and expectations of other stakeholders (including for us in conservation- populations, species, ecosystems and landscapes).


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

Watkins M. (2007 From SWOT to TOWS: answering a readers querstion. Harvard Business Review)

Case Study from Hawaii – Purpose, Vision and Values in Forest Bird Conservation

Case Study

Hanna Mounce is a colleague who leads the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. A very good summary article of the challenges which her team face is described in an Audubon article on their efforts to restore high altitude ecosystems in Maui, Hawaii. As a leader Hanna  has to ensure that her team are purposeful, buy into a meaningful vision which steers the direction and planning of work and have a common value system which makes sense to the team and can be recognisable to outsiders.

The purpose of the team is to protect and recover the island’s endangered species and ecosystems (particularly the forest bird species).

The vision is to restore high altitude ecosystems which will provide malaria free habitats protected against the effects of climate change. This vision is not so much about restoring lost landscapes (a ‘nice to have’ option) but is linked to and justified by the fundamental purpose of the project – these new landscapes will become the last wild refuge for endemic species as malaria encroaches lower altitude habitats.

The values of the team include a persistent belief that conservation of Maui’s endemic species is feasible and worthwhile. The species are not a lost cause, the work is not an excuse for a career in field conservation. The team members believe that the work is valuable, meaningful and will make a difference.


Jarvis B. (2015) How Scientists are Racing to Save a Rare Bird From Extinction. Audubon, Sept-October.

Acting fast to save species demands clarity of purpose

Simon Black – 

In recent years it has become clear that fast action is often required to save threatened species. This is important because even if sometimes we might prefer to think about options, make grand plans or gather scientific evidence, circumstances might not give us that luxury (Martin et al. 2012).

The only way to know the answer to  ‘what must we do now?’ is to have a clear PURPOSE in our work (Black, 2015). For example, if we need to save the orange bellied parrot, then what we must do today is something concrete in line with that mission; if emergency action is required (such as bringing wild individuals into protective captivity for an accelerated breeding programme), then that must be carried out. By contrast, if conservation managers decide to conduct monitoring and devise a recovery plan they must consider…WHAT WILL MONITORING AND PLAN CREATION DO TO RECOVER THE SPECIES NOW?

The Panamanian golden frog is one example where extreme measures were taken (removing all individuals from the wild to evade fatal chytridiomycosis infection) simply to save the species (Gagliardo et al., 2008).

Of course, the action itself must be purposeful. The capture in 1980 and care of the juvenile male Yangtze river dolphin (or Baiji) known as Qi-Qi did not progress to become a breeding programme, despite a female being captured in 1996. The male died alone in captivity in 2002, and the species was considered extinct by 2007 (Turvey et al., 2007). The purpose of Qi-Qi’s capture appears to have been to act as an ambassador (i.e. an exhibit) of the species rather than to save the species itself.

One must identify the correct purpose of work in order for that work to serve the right system (i.e. the species and its ecosystem), not a corporation, or an NGOs publicity machine, nor a person’s career, nor a particular political system, nor a university’s research programme.


Black S. A. (2015) A clear purpose is the start point for conservation leadership. Conservation Letters, 8(5), 383–384. doi: 10.1111/conl.12203

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.

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

Turvey, Samuel T.; Pitman, Robert L.; Taylor, Barbara L.; Barlow, Jay; Akamatsu, Tomonari; Barrett, Leigh A.; Zhao, Xuijiang; Reeves, Randall R.; Stewert, Brent S.; Wang, Kexiong; Wei, Zhuo; Zhang, Xianfeng; Pusser, L.T.; Richlen, Michael; Brandon, John R. & Wang, Ding (August 7, 2007). “First human-caused extinction of a cetacean species?”. Biology Letters (Royal Society Publishing) 3 (5): 537–40. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0292

Vision and goals: what is it all about?

Simon Black –

A key area of capability for a leader is to have a strong sense of purpose for the work that they and their team must undertake. Questions like ‘Why are we here?‘, ‘Why are we doing this work?‘ can be answered with a statement of purpose. In conservation it might be something like ‘ to recover and conserve species X’, or ‘to recover and protect landscape Y’, or ‘to restore ecosystem Z’. That purpose must be reasonably within the control of the team; so a purpose defined as follows: ‘to prevent global climate change’ would be unhelpul and difficult to operationalise (so not really worth the paper it is written on).

Durrell is one organisation which has a clear purpose (they call it a mission) “saving species from extinction“. In any work the organisation undertakes, people can legitimately ask – ‘does this work help save species from extinction?’ The assumption is that if the work does not deliver this expectation, it is the wrong work to be doing.

WWF’s mission is “to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.” This sets a broad expectation but is perhaps less easy to operationalise (or at least to discriminate what to do and what not to do).

In understanding purpose, we need to help understand the work we do – and to have that understanding which is common across the team. In Durrell there may be debate about which species to save from extinction, but thereafter what to do can be carried out. This type of decision making is perhaps less easy to agree with the WWF mission – there are likely to be a myriad of other criteria which are necessary to prioritise WWF’s work.

FFI describe their mission as “To act to conserve threatened species & ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science & take into account human needs“. This is clear, but perhaps also includes qualitative criteria worthy of debate – what is ‘sound science’, what should we do if effective conservation can be achieved without science? What if human needs contravene the conservation of species, or drive unsustainability? What if sound scinece is unsustainable? These are legitimate questions.

Vision then builds a view of the future – and this is a move-able feast driven by the context we are working in; HOW we conserve species might involve building a secure captive population far from harms way, but a different vision might have the population restored in its native habitat, another vision might see the population trans-located to a new uninhabited location; it all depends on context. Which vision is most likely to inspire others to engage with the work and which will also ensure the purpose of the work?

With these things in mind a leader can set short-term goals and learn more about the system that is being worked with.

In the Black, Groombridge Jones paper is a description of some areas to consider in developing purpose, vision, goals and plans:

  • Establish shared long-term vision & common sense of purpose.
  • Identify what is happening/affecting biodiversity.
  • Set clear, short-term achievable goals.
  • Ensure flexibility in all levels of planning.
  • Consider view of stakeholders and partners.
  • Start plans by understanding current performance v purpose.
  • Ensure that staff embrace project aims and culture.
  • Get people to measure performance in relation to project aims.
  • Advocate good governance, particularly in complex projects.
  • Ensure congruency between plans, action and results.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead. Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.

Tell me: what’s your purpose?

Simon Black –

To be clear about our work, who (or what) we are serving, how to do the work, how to change, what improvement looks like – we need to be clear about one thing:


Peter Scholtes was one of the clearest writers on this concept; for him, like Deming before, everything starts with purpose;  “Without a purpose there is no system”.

Until we have clarity of purpose, all we are doing is completing sets of tasks. ‘Purpose’ should be embedded in our thinking about work, people and organisations. We should be focused on the needs of the sepcies and ecosystems of concern. If not our goals can easily drag us off-track.

Scholtes offers a very clear analogy to illustrate the importance of purpose:

“Cleaning a table cannot be a system until the purpose of the clean table is made clear. A table clean enough to eat on requires one system of cleaning. Clean enough to dance on requires another. Clean enough to perform surgery on requires yet another. Everything starts with purpose.

“What is your purpose?” is the most useful question one can be asked. 

When thinking this way, conservation work is transformed from being seen as tasks to carry out, to become a reason to do something which adds real value; a framework for making decisions and seeking ways to improve.

Read more:

Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Deming, W. E. (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, second edition. MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Scholtes P.R. (1999) The New Competencies of Leadership, Total Quality Management, 10: 4&5, S704-S710.