“Conservation Effectiveness” is a multi-part series investigating the effectiveness of some of the most popular strategies to conserve tropical forests around the world.
The series is the result of a collaboration between Mongabay staff reporters Shreya Dasgupta and Mike Gaworecki, and a team of conservation scientists led by tropical forest ecologist Zuzana Burivalova of Princeton University.
Conservation Effectiveness launches next week.
How do you solve a conservation problem?
Do you protect a wild leopard that has entered a village by removing it and releasing it into a forest far, far away? Or do you work with the people living in the village and help them live with the leopards and other wildlife that might stray into their backyards?
Do you save a patch of tropical forest by declaring it a protected area and keeping people out? Or do you let local communities take charge?
The answers to these questions are, as might be expected, not straightforward. But we do need answers.
We are in the middle of what some scientists call a “sixth mass extinction” event. Our planet is losing species at least 100 times faster than historical levels. Halting this ongoing human-induced extinction will be neither easy nor cheap.
Nearly every country has committed to reducing the loss of globally threatened species and protecting their habitats under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 2020 biodiversity targets. This would cost about $80 billion per year, scientists estimated in 2012.
But the overall picture is poor, CBD noted in its 2016 report. With just three years left, most countries have made “inadequate progress” in achieving the 2020 targets and have “weak levels of future ambition” to do so, the report found.
Funding for conservation, too, is becoming increasingly scarce. So figuring out how to spend this money — prioritizing which areas to protect and which actions to undertake to halt the loss of species — is crucial.
“If we want to invest significant amounts of resources — in many cases it is the tax payers’ or donor’s money — then we need to know whether the conservation interventions or programs that we spend the money on have led to good outcomes or the outcomes we want, rather than perverse outcomes or simply no outcome at all,” said Andrew Pullin, chair of the board of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE), an open community of scientists and managers working to synthesize evidence on environmental management practices.
This is true not only at the scale of large multi-national conservation NGOs with billions of dollars to invest, Pullin added, but also for smaller groups or individuals working to conserve a single reserve or species.
But how do conservationists determine if their conservation intervention or program is actually effective?
Measuring conservation effectiveness
For a long time, wildlife managers relied on intuition, personal experience, anecdotes, or trial and error to make decisions about which strategy to implement. Many still do. But such decision-making is a shot in the dark.
Take, for example, India’s “pugmark census method” to monitor tiger populations. For more than 30 years, wildlife managers in India used pugmarks (or tiger footprints) to estimate tiger numbers across the country. They assumed that each tiger has a unique pugmark, and depended on experience to “correctly assign” pugmarks to tigers. These assumptions were wrong, and the pugmark census method — backed by huge funding — was leading to inaccurate overestimates, scientists pointed out in a 2003 study. Conservation needs to be backed by science, the researchers wrote.
In fact, since the early 2000s, scientists have been calling for a shift from experience-based actions to evidence-based ones just like the revolution for evidence-based medicine in the 1980s. While doctors previously relied heavily on personal experience to recommend procedures and therapies, they now tend to base their decisions on the best available research evidence for what works, what doesn’t, and at what cost.
“If you went to a doctor and he gave you drugs or performed a surgery on you without really knowing whether it worked, you wouldn’t be very happy about that, right?” Claire Wordley of the Conservation Evidence group at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. told Mongabay. The job of conserving biodiversity, too, should be based on knowing whether a strategy works or not, she added.
However, evidence remains a small and overlooked part of decision-making in conservation. This is because, for a long time, results of conservation actions were rarely measured or documented, researchers wrote in a 2004 study.
This seems to be changing now. Conservationists are increasingly generating data on the effectiveness of various conservation strategies — from determining whether or not protected areas truly lower deforestation rates to whether or not culling predators actually reduces human-wildlife conflict.
Such research is invaluable. It can help conservationists decide which intervention to spend their money and resources on.
It is a lot like shopping, said Hugh Possingham, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.
“If you go into a supermarket and you see this box of food, you want to know how much it costs, do you like what’s in it, what is the chance that your family is not going to eat it, and will it get spoiled,” Possingham said. “If it’s too expensive, or if there’s not enough benefit, you’re not going to buy it. Decision making in conservation is the same. It is easy to do. But you need the information to do it.”
However, this information is not easy to get. Most studies measuring the effectiveness of conservation strategies are either locked behind a paywall or remain poorly communicated. Moreover, scattered, individual studies cannot give us generalizable results about a strategy’s success or failure.
Mongabay’s new reporting initiative Conservation Effectiveness aims to change this.
Conservation Effectiveness reporting initiative
Beginning next week, Mongabay will bring you an in-depth series investigating the effectiveness of some of the most popular strategies to conserve tropical forests around the world. These include forest certification, payments for ecosystem services, protected areas, community forest management, and others.
We will scour the best available research and talk to experts, and try to give you a verdict: Does the conservation strategy achieve its objectives? Does it fail? Is it any better than doing nothing at all?
The series will also examine how big conservation organizations use evidence to guide their decisions and how they evaluate the effectiveness of their projects.
To develop Conservation Effectiveness, Mongabay staff reporters Shreya Dasgupta and Mike Gaworecki have collaborated with a team of conservation scientists led by tropical forest ecologist Zuzana Burivalova of Princeton University.
Our research on these topics so far has shown that even for popular tropical conservation measures, we frequently have little or conflicting evidence to show that they actually work, or the evidence is not evenly distributed: there is often a lot more evidence from South America than from Africa, for instance, and the social consequences of conservation tend to be understudied.
Conservation Effectiveness launches next week and stories will run regularly through early next year.
Additional reporting for the Conservation Effectiveness series was done by Hans Nicholas Jong, Indonesia staff writer at Mongabay.
Banner photograph of deforestation in Borneo by Rhett A. Butler.
Follow Shreya Dasgupta on Twitter: @ShreyaDasgupta
Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001