- Increasing numbers of scientific papers on conservation are published every year, but for many people these remain inaccessible behind paywalls, difficult to locate in a vast ocean of research, or time-consuming to read.
- There are increasing attempts to bring the evidence for particular questions together in digestible formats, such as systematic reviews or Mongabay’s Conservation Effectiveness series. One such enterprise is the Conservation Evidence project, which assesses the evidence for the effectiveness of conservation interventions.
- A new edition of the book ‘What Works in Conservation,’ produced by Conservation Evidence, is available and free to download. This book helps us to see which conservation interventions have been shown to work, which have been shown not to work, and where we need more evidence.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Imagine you are the head of a small NGO trying to conserve vultures. You have limited funds, and have to choose your actions carefully. Would supplementary feeding increase the population? Could you artificially incubate eggs and hand-rear some chicks to release, or would it be better to foster the eggs or chicks of the endangered vulture with a wild conspecific? Do your vultures need calcium supplements, and would an education program for local communities be a good idea? Would a change in legislation have an impact?
Trying to research what is known about the effectiveness of all these actions could take months, and you may not be able to access much of the research, as you’d have to pay to read many of the scientific papers. Therefore, you might end up having to make decisions on gut instinct, or the anecdotes of just a couple of people that you know.
But imagine you had all the global evidence for every action you thought of taking at your fingertips — wouldn’t that be helpful?
Well, you do. The Conservation Evidence (CE) project at the UK’s University of Cambridge (where I work) collects exactly this sort of information and makes it available for free online — and now the latest edition of CE’s reference book What Works in Conservation is freely available to download, for those who work predominantly offline.
What is What Works?
‘What Works in Conservation’ is a summary of the evidence for the effectiveness of 1,277 different interventions — i.e., things you might do to try and conserve a species or habitat. Each intervention is scored by experts for effectiveness (based on the evidence available), the quality and quantity of the evidence (i.e. the strength of the evidence), and any harms that might arise from the intervention to the target habitat or taxa. These scores lead to each intervention being assigned a color-coded category from ‘Beneficial’ to ‘Likely to be ineffective or harmful.’ This allows you to get a feel for the effectiveness of an intervention at a glance. To dive deeper into the details of the evidence, links are provided to the free online resource.
The 2018 edition of this book is over 50 percent larger than the 2017 edition, reflecting the new taxa and habitats reviewed by the CE team in the last year. The brand-new chapters in the 2018 edition cover the global conservation of primates, shrublands and heathlands, and peatlands. There’s also a smaller chapter covering ways to manage some animal species in captivity. The existing chapter on controlling freshwater invasive species has been expanded to add more species. Chapters carried over from the 2017 edition cover the conservation of amphibians, bats, birds, and forests, conservation of European farmland biodiversity, and some aspects of enhancing natural pest control and soil fertility. The new chapters — especially on primates and peatlands — make this edition more useful for conservationists in the tropics than ever before.
As increasing quantities of research are published every year, collating and organizing this research and digesting it into a user-friendly format becomes more and more valuable — and more challenging, as there are more studies to search through. What Works in Conservation aims to expand every year, with work currently underway to assess interventions for more mammal species, marine habitats, and grasslands, as well as to re-review and update existing chapters, starting with bats and birds.
What can I do?
So how can you support this initiative? As a conservation researcher, look into testing conservation interventions. Relatively few papers in conservation journals actually test whether something worked in conservation, yet this is a powerful way to improve conservation practice — and may be a more optimistic way to work by focusing on solutions rather than on threats. You can use What Works in Conservation to identify knowledge clusters — where we know quite a lot — and knowledge gaps — where we don’t know how well an intervention works. By directing your work towards knowledge gaps, you can help to fill them in, enabling conservation practitioners and policymakers to make decisions informed by the scientific evidence.
As a conservation practitioner or policy-maker, you can use What Works in Conservation — along with other evidence syntheses such as systematic reviews where desirable, and local experience and knowledge — to choose interventions that have the highest chance of success. You can also, if you have the funds, test what you are doing and publish your results — for example in the open access, free to publish Conservation Evidence journal – to add to the knowledge base.
As a conservation funder, you can ask grant applicants to explain why they think their intervention will work, based on What Works in Conservation, other scientific evidence, and their own experience. It’s easy to follow ‘trends’ in conservation for particular interventions, but it’s often shocking to realize that they are not necessarily tried and tested methods with a proven track record of success. Also, see if you can free some funding for grantees to test their interventions. You want to know whether particular interventions work, so that you can encourage future grantees to choose one course of action over another. But don’t penalize those whose interventions didn’t work – incentivize them to publish the results, so others can learn from their experiment.
Global conservation is a team sport, where we all need to pull together as much as possible. This means sharing our failures as well as our successes, learning from each other, and helping and supporting each other in multiple ways to ensure the best outcomes for biodiversity. We see What Works in Conservation as one part of that way of working: a platform for scientists and practitioners from all over the world to share and learn important lessons on what works in conservation.
Dr. Claire Wordley is a researcher with the Conservation Evidence group at the University of Cambridge. Her background includes working on the responses of tropical bats to forest fragmentation and agricultural activity. This led to an interest in researching how to make conservation change happen, and she now works at Conservation Evidence working with NGOs and government agencies to see how they can best use and produce scientific evidence.
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