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5 reasons why many conservation efforts fail

  • Managing natural resources is complex.
  • Some conservation efforts, such as the recovery of the southern white rhinos, have seen triumph. But often these wins are short-lived.
  • Mongabay examines five reasons (in no particular order) that may have contributed to the failure of many conservation efforts.

One aim of conservation projects is to protect wild habitats and prevent species extinction. But managing natural resources is complex. Despite striving for years, conservation groups — both big and small — often struggle to find that perfect recipe for success.

Some conservation efforts have seen triumph. For example, the recovery of the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum ssp. simum) is considered to be one of the biggest conservation success stories in recent times.

In the 1800s, the southern white rhino was considered extinct. But thanks to intensive efforts that involved creation of protected areas and captive breeding of the rhinos, this sub-species went from a tiny, single population of less than 50 individuals in 1895 to more than 20,000 individuals. Now, the southern white rhino is the most abundant of all the rhinos.

Often though, such wins are short-lived. In the case of the southern white rhino, for example, a recent uptick in rampant poaching carried out by organized criminal networks is seriously threatening the rhino’s survival and undermining conservationists’ efforts.

As human population continues to grow, and resources become limited, conservation successes may become harder to come by, scientists say.

“To be blunt, we are feeding and breeding like hungry migratory locusts,” William Laurance, a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University, told Mongabay. “When my grandfather was a boy, we had a billion people on Earth; today we have well over seven billion, and we could well be heading toward ten billion or more. To this point in time, we’ve survived by continually exploiting new frontiers—for minerals, timber, oil, and other goods—but we’re running out of new frontiers to exploit.”

And this can spell trouble for wildlife and wild lands. In fact, despite efforts to curb species extinction, “the average risk of extinction for birds, mammals, amphibians and corals show no sign of decreasing”, according to the United Nation’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 report.

Numerous reasons — often complex and interrelated — can result in conservation failure. Mongabay examines five of these reasons, in no particular order.

Recovery of the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum ssp. simum) is considered to be one of the biggest conservation success stories in recent times. Photo by Zigomar, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Lack of local buy-in

Every year, new protected areas are chalked out across the world. Often, these are created in developing countries, which are both rich in biodiversity and have some of the poorest populations in the world.

Traditionally though, protected areas have been designed to exclude local communities. In some cases, such as in parks that have sufficient manpower and resources to physically patrol and guard the parks effectively, or when local communities have voluntarily moved out of the parks after being adequately consulted and compensated, this “preservation” conservation strategy has worked.

But as people and wildlife scramble for space, excluding local people from conservation efforts in increasingly becoming a recipe for failure in the long run.

According to a 2013 review study, displacing local communities from their traditional lands, restricting their access to resources within the parks, and providing little or no compensation, can make them hostile towards the conservation groups and their efforts. Often, this leads to conflict, compelling the communities to go against the established rules, and harvest resources and hunt illegally.

“If the local people do not see a benefit of local conservation, then whatever the laws are, they are going to be ineffective,” Stuart Pimm, a Professor of conservation ecology at the Duke University, told Mongabay.

Failing to consider the people who live in and around protected areas can have disastrous consequences. It can delay projects, cause conservationists and governments to miss their conservation targets, and cost billions of dollars because of the ensuing conflict.

However, like all conservation strategies, community-based conservation must be carefully designed, scientists say.

“Truth be said, a lot of local management does not work very well,” Laurance said. “That’s not to imply that top-down management of parks and other lands is perfect either. I actually think that almost everything is context-dependent.”

Failing to consider the people who live in and around protected areas. Photo by Isewell, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5.

Ignoring history

One problem, according to some experts, is that conservationists tend to apply conservation strategies far too generally. They fail to understand the past and current ecology of the place, its wildlife, politics and people. And this can lead to failure.

Studies have shown, for instance, that conservation groups often fail to look into past patterns of human population densities in and around proposed protected areas. They also fail to delve into the history of land tenure, conflict and resource use in the forests or habitats they want to protect.

Conservation groups also tend to plan their projects based on a number of misleading assumptions, experts say. One such assumption, for instance, is that conservationists tend to look at local communities as socially homogenous groups of people. Project planners often fail to appreciate the complexities of gender, households, different institutes and individuals within communities, which can result in conflict and failure.

Planners also tend to assume that local people are destructive to biodiversity conservation. While this may be true in some cases, this blanket assumption means that conservation groups sometimes ignore the true dynamics of the local communities’ agricultural and hunting practices, and how these are adapted to the local socio-ecological conditions.

“Unless you understand the local politics, you’re not going to be successful,” Pimm said. “Now, I’m never going to understand that completely. I don’t live in those places. But I can do my best, and I can recognize that I have to work with the people and the local politics.”

Lack of funding

Biodiversity protection requires money. But conservation groups often struggle to find reliable sources of funding that can ensure long-term success of their conservation initiatives.

“A big problem is that we tend to have funding models based on three- to five-year cycles,” Laurance said. “We start a project and then expect quick and, ideally, long-term results. But things fall apart once the funding stops. You can’t throw dollars in the short term at complex problems and expect long-term success.”

When funding does become available, it is often unevenly distributed or biased towards certain groups of animals. A study published in 2010, for example, found that “charismatic” species of mammals were more likely to find scientific funding than other “less attractive” reptiles, birds or amphibians. Similarly, a study published this month found that only 12 percent of endangered species on the U.S. endangered species lists are receiving as much funding as prescribed in their recovery plan.

Sometimes though, availability of funds does not guarantee that biodiversity conservation efforts will be fruitful. According to Pimm, this is a problem with many large conservation groups. Large groups are more interested in raising large sums of money, he said, rather than spending them well.

“This is the reason why I founded SavingSpecies with some very distinguished conservation scientists,” he added. “We felt that small conservation groups are first of all small, and that makes them vulnerable. Big conservation groups are sucking the funding out. So we wanted to do our best to empower and encourage all local groups simply because we believe that they are more effective at what they do than the bigger groups.”

SavingSpecies helps fund conservation efforts by local groups such as the Golden Lion Tamarin Association. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lack of clearly stated goals

All projects need goals. Conservation initiatives, too, start with goals and objectives that the groups want to achieve within a given period of time. These goals help chart out specific management actions as well as strategies to distribute money and resources that can make the conservation project a success.

Unfortunately, many conservation projects set out with very fuzzy, poorly designed goals, Pimm said. “These are usually set by people who are funding the projects rather than by the absolute priority of the conservation action that they are seeking,” he added. “I think that sometimes the goals are not even very closely connected with conservation.”

Conservation efforts benefit from straightforward goals and measurable objectives — both short-term and long-term — that are guided by the “best available” science. Such objectives can help evaluate the success of a conservation program.

Setting unrealistic or inconsistent goals, however, can seriously undermine conservation efforts. When local communities are involved, for example, changing objectives can lead to confusion among the community members regarding how the natural resources will be managed. This can in turn lead to frustration and failure of conservation efforts.

Conservation is complex, though. So defining clear objectives and quantitatively measuring the success of conservation efforts is not always possible or feasible.

“Let’s say, for instance, that I teach a course in conservation practice, and one of my students happens to be the daughter of the director of national parks of a nation, and that she in turn inspires her father to establish series of new parks,” Laurance said. “That’s a very important outcome, but it’s diffuse and indirect.  How does one measure that sort of thing?  Conservation success can happen in lots of ways that are not always easy to assess.”

Lack of law and order

Poaching of rhinos and elephants is at an all time high. Yet, loopholes in existing laws, poor governance and lack of law enforcement are making it easy for poachers and traffickers to get away with their crimes.

Studies have shown that parks are more effective in protecting biodiversity when they have a higher density of guards patrolling them. Harsher punishments can also be deterrents to wildlife crimes. Often though, forest guards are insufficiently trained and equipped, and lack the means to patrol parks or fight against armed poachers.

Moreover, wildlife crimes such as poaching and illegal timber logging are increasingly becoming organized and are no longer limited to violations of national and international laws relating to the environment, according to a recent INTERPOL report. Wildlife crimes often intersect other offences such as murder, corruption, and the trafficking of drugs and weapons, making law enforcement by environment authorities particularly challenging, the report notes.

Tackling such complex crimes requires increased collaboration between various environmental and policing agencies, anti-money laundering networks and anti-corruption authorities.

“We need to push for cultural changes in which corruption and poor enforcement become less acceptable socially,” Laurance said. “I’m not quite sure how to do this but a heck of a lot of bad environmental decisions are made because somebody is getting rich as a result.”

Loopholes in existing laws, poor governance and lack of law enforcement makes it easier for poachers and traffickers to get away with their crimes. Photo by Fitzpatrick Bill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Domain.

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