- Today’s conservationists in the field often must decide quickly what actions to take based on whatever evidence is available at the time. There typically isn’t the luxury to engage in a more formal information-gathering process.
- Now, however, there is a push within the conservation community to move further toward a more extensive investigative process in order to prioritize what works and avoid funding failure. This is not a bad idea. But, if we are to be successful at this most urgent time for wildlife, we can’t lose sight of the fact that evidence is lots of things, and when it comes to conservation, it should not be solely interpreted as randomized control trials and rigorous statistical analyses.
- Conservation field staff would urge us all to understand the environments in which they work and the need for quick decision-making. Constraining them from doing what they do best, discounting decades of experience and the local knowledge they’ve accrued, would be a real crime.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
The best fictional detectives — Holmes, Tennison, Mars, Warshawski, Wallander — all employ their almost miraculous skills of observation and deduction to solve a whodunit. They rely on instinct, yes, but they also lean on lessons learned from past cases and clues gleaned from forensics and psychology so they can make decisions fast to keep up with and eventually catch the culprit.
Today’s conservationists are not all that different. In the field, they often must decide quickly what actions to take based on whatever evidence is available at the time. There typically isn’t the luxury to engage in a more formal information-gathering process. Instead, they tap into their experience and a solid foundation in subjects like ecology and human behavior.
Now, however, there is a push within the conservation community to move further toward a more extensive investigative process in order to prioritize what works and avoid funding failure. This is not a bad idea. But, if we are to be successful at this most urgent time for wildlife, we can’t lose sight of a lesson learned from Holmes and his colleagues: As was referenced in Mongabay’s original series on conservation evidence, evidence is lots of things, and when it comes to conservation, it should not be solely interpreted as randomized control trials and rigorous statistical analyses. Conservation evidence is also observations on the fly and anecdotes from past projects. It’s all the stuff that gives us confidence that we know whodunit.
If we entangle our field staff in a more onerous process, if we don’t let those on site assess the situation independently, including all the inputs at their disposal, we risk letting wildlife and wild places slip away.
At its most strident, the call for more formal evidence gathering assumes two things, both of which are incorrect: First, that conservationists are not already using evidence to assess what is working or to decide to try something else if the current approach is failing to produce desired results; and second, that conservation organizations are or could be structured in a way that would enable the top-down flow of evidence to guide the day-to-day actions of field programs.
These assumptions are based on misconceptions about the form and use of evidence within the conservation community.
The term evidence often, regrettably, connotes information imbued with an unambiguous true or false level of rigor and an irrefutable veracity. This understanding of evidence would also seem to suggest that one needs to be 100 percent certain to settle on a specific course of action. The reality is that field conservationists, who live in a world of incomplete information a la Holmes or Wallander, have always used what evidence they can glean, however incomplete, to guide the actions they take.
Of course, what they have tends to be somewhat fuzzy and uncertain, because we do not know how ecological systems truly work and our understanding of why individuals and groups behave as they do is incomplete. That is not to say that we don’t gather and use empirical evidence in our decision-making. We do. It’s just not typically available in a timeframe that is useful for day-to-day operations.
Far from spitballing, conservationists’ decisions are in fact grounded in sound ecological and sociological theory, which allows us to plan and act in the conservation spaces where we work. But field conservationists’ decisions are also informed by their own expert knowledge, organized by theory and experience. And the evidence garnered by field teams and local partners during daily operations is used to assess what is working, what is not, and why — and to decide whether to continue current actions or shift to a different approach.
This is a sensible way to use imperfect but good-enough, locally relevant information to support adaptive management of a conservation project. Combined with a clear and explicit theory of change (a hypothesis on why a desired change will happen) and measurable objectives (concrete ways to determine success), this use of evidence helps reduce uncertainty and manage risk when designing and implementing conservation actions. Unfortunately, as decisions like these are largely based on undervalued expert knowledge, many continue to discount their importance.
For senior management and the governing boards of conservation organizations, scientifically gathered evidence is seen as a potentially powerful tool for differentiating their brands from others in the donor marketplace. In effect, this type of evidence allows an organization to show supporters that the funds they invested had a demonstrable impact on the species and ecosystems they sought to conserve. Whether senior managers see evidence as a way to set strategic priorities for the organization and guide the actions of field programs is much less clear.
Conservation field staff would agree that the fruits of formal evidence-gathering are important to making good conservation decisions and that lessons that are largely undocumented are difficult to share outside individual projects. But they would also urge us all to understand the environments in which they work and the need for quick decision-making. Constraining them from doing what they do best, discounting decades of experience and the local knowledge they’ve accrued, would be a real crime.
David Wilkie is Executive Director of Conservation Measures and Communities at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Michael Painter is a senior technical advisor at WCS.
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