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Effective conservation science must shift away from doomsday views and toward solutions: Study

Sea lions. Image courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society.

Sea lions. Image courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society.

  • Too much of conservation research focuses on describing the state of nature, in particular declines in biodiversity, and not on developing sustainable solutions to conservation challenges, say the authors of a new study.
  • Studies that “ring the alarm bell” tend to dominate because of the challenges of doing the kind of complex multidisciplinary research needed to develop workable solutions, and the fact that professional and financial incentives are lacking for the latter kind of work.
  • The researchers highlighted three cases in which the accumulated body of research on a particular conservation challenge took a solution-oriented trajectory and met with success: South Asian vultures, whooping cranes, and seabird bycatch.

Conservation science that more effectively serves the goals of protecting and enhancing global biodiversity must shift away from tracking declines and toward devising real-world solutions, a recent study suggests.

Too much of the field’s research focuses on describing the state of nature (such as the fact that a particular population is declining), and too little on what is causing those declines and how to address it, the authors write in their paper in the journal Conservation Letters.

“There seems to be this disconnect between what everybody knows needs to be done, and what’s actually being done,” co-author David Williams, a conservation scientist at the University of Leeds, said in an interview with Mongabay.

Williams and his co-authors — Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University and David Wilcove of Princeton — mapped the discipline’s development against a simple framework, which assumes that effective conservation science occurs when we progressively deepen our understanding of the threats to particular populations and the drivers of those threats — and then design and test interventions to address them.

They then classified a representative sample of 959 articles published over the past 20 years in 20 conservation journals to see whether the research fit into the framework.

The results were “quite worrying,” according to Williams, “given how much money has been spent and how many papers have been published.”

Forty-three percent of the studies analyzed simply described the state of particular populations, and did not identify what was threatening them at all; only 10% explored the drivers behind threats they identified; and 70% of studies didn’t propose any response to the declines they observed.

“Even more worrying is the fact that this doesn’t seem to be changing over time,” Williams said. “We don’t seem to be developing this deeper understanding of threats or how to respond to them.”

The heartening story of the South Asian vultures

Some conservation science success stories buck the prevailing trend. The researchers identified three case studies — South Asian Gyps vultures, whooping cranes (Grus americana) and seabird bycatch by longliners — in which the accumulated research fits well with the trajectory in the authors’ framework.

The vultures’ case is particularly compelling. In the late 1990s, researchers began producing papers about a rapid decline in vulture populations across South Asia. Then, a group of local, national and international organizations concerned with bird conservation set up a consortium called Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) to coordinate research efforts.

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

First, the consortium set up a captive-breeding program to ensure the birds wouldn’t become extinct before the causes of their decline were identified. Interdisciplinary research then linked the decline to a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, which had recently come out of patent in South Asia and was being widely used to treat sick cows in the region.

“In India and Nepal, people look after their cows really well because they’re very culturally important, and if a cow gets sick they want to do everything they can to alleviate its pain,” Williams said. So people were giving the drug to their sick animals, and often those animals died and ended up in open-air cattle graveyards. Vultures that fed on these diclofenac-laced carcasses wound up developing fatal visceral gout.

The researchers began to test solutions, such as creating so-called vulture restaurants of uncontaminated meat, and designating diclofenac-free zones in larger landscapes, “but it became apparent that we actually needed to replace diclofenac with something else,” Williams said. “You weren’t going to be able to stop people getting it into their animals, or somehow separate vultures from their primary food source,” he added.

Innovative six-pack rings feed fish, turtles and seabirds instead of entangling, choking, poisoning or killing them as plastic ones do, and could thereby save hundreds of thousands of marine lives. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

A vulture-safe anti-inflammatory drug was developed, and the consortium turned their attention to lobbying and policy work to ban diclofenac and boost the uptake of the alternative. In 2006, diclofenac was banned for veterinary use, and vulture populations in the region are now recovering.

Why has this particular case been successful where others have failed? Rhys Green, a Cambridge professor and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds biologist who chairs SAVE’s board, said in an interview that the coordination of studies “hasn’t come about by accident — it’s because a group of organizations has planned that that should happen, and has a work plan which it reviews every year to check on how it’s doing.”

Systemic issues and loci of change

As several commenters have pointed out in response to the recent study, most conservation problems don’t have such neat-and-tidy solutions as the vulture case, in which few people are disadvantaged by the changes required.

Williams acknowledged that solution-focused conservation research is usually very challenging, time-consuming and poorly rewarded within the academic world. For one thing, it requires a skill set that many conservation scientists don’t have: the ability to do complex multidisciplinary research.

“These are fundamentally human as much as biological issues,” Williams said. “You can design a perfect ecological response, but to implement that in the real world you need to know about policy, governance, economics and so on.”

Researchers in the field fitting a GPS tag. Image courtesy Robert M. Pringle.

It can be difficult to get that kind of research published, and less beneficial for an academic’s career than presenting high-level, single-discipline theoretical insights.

Moreover, research that tests solutions to problems on the ground will always be somewhat idiosyncratic and limited in its scope, compared to “big sexy global analyses,” as Williams terms them, or the identification of new populations in decline.

“Ringing the alarm bell is identified by academic journals as being something that’s going to help their impact factors more,” Green said. “Academics don’t necessarily get kudos and rewards for trying to make sure their findings are applied; there are not really the incentives for them to do that in the way that research is funded.”

The researchers identified a number of ways to counter these challenges, including making conservation science training more holistic and encouraging journals, funders and academic hiring and promotional committees to embrace more interdisciplinary and solution-oriented projects. These recommendations come just as scientists warn that around a million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction.

Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa, New Zealand, who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at

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Williams, D. R., Balmford, A., & Wilcove, D. S. (2020). The past and future role of conservation science in saving biodiversity. Conservation Letters, e12720. doi:10.1111/conl.12720

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