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

Systems Thinking for Conservation Leaders

Simon Black – 

In recent years we have started talking about the suitability of systems thinking in relation to conservation management. The approach is non-hierarchical (so is not reliant on a political or cultural norm) – it is a way of managing that cuts through the necessity of a hierarchy. If you do have hierarchical leaders, they just need to start asking different questions. Systems thinking (e.g. the team are a system, they operate in a work system, the organisation is part of a larger system) clearly fits with the notion of ecosystems and complexity which is at the core of conservation.

Knowledge is at the core of systems thinking, optimisation of the system is critical and anything which undermines this is to be avoided. Simplicity of intervention is paramount, and taking different approaches to managing ‘exceptions’ and ‘the norm’ is importnat.

Many of these things are obvious but the ways in which we tackle them ARE OFTEN COUNTER-INTUITIVE. For example:

  • to increase motivation do not attempt to ‘motivate’ people,
  • incentives do not incentivise what we want to be done,
  • re-training is not the best way to improve worker capability,
  • standardisation of work causes increased failure,
  • targets are counterproductive,
  • a focus on cost reduction will not reduce costs,The list goes on…

Some principles of system thinking include:

  • Managing improvement is about understanding predictability of the system. Predictability is based on an understanding of either:
    (i) data over time or (ii) cause and effect.
  • The start point in working in a complex environment is to study it (not plan) and to understand how it currently supports the conservation purpose, and how (through flow of processes and systems). If the purpose of the system is understood, then measures to examine the system can be put in place and then methods for improving the system versus measures and purpose can be experimented with, thereby further informing the understanding of the system.
  • When you want to make a change the only plan you need is how to study the system – all the work thereafter follows. In ecosystems we are unlikely to know all of the complexity of processes, but by continual experimentation and learning we understand what has a positive impact (and what does not) for the species of concern.
  • The ‘demand’ (defined as species and ecosystems’ needs including threats) is the biggest lever for change – so it must be understood. It can be understood by the people doing the work (or affecting the system) only through their study of and understanding of the realities and patterns of those demands.
  • An understanding of ‘demand’ drives the leader to consider which bits of the system need to be learned about and for which improvement could be focused.
  • Cooperation is a consequence of the design of the work system – the system governs people’s behaviours, not the other way around. This is important in working with teams, communities, businesses.

Note that the only standardisation that occurs in this approach is to develop measures of purpose. All else needs to developed in the context of the species and ecosystems of concern. With the measures in place, all work will follow the measures to drive improvement.


Black, S.A. (2015) A Clear Purpose is the Start Point for Conservation Leadership. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12203

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