It’s the People, stupid

David O'Connor

People (I’m as guilty as anyone) can be annoying, frustrating, even infuriating. I think for many of us in conservation, it’s one of the reasons we value our work as much as we do. We spend countless joyous hours alone observing or tracking wildlife out on the remote edges, blissfully free of people.

However, I think this desire to avoid people and the challenges they may pose leads to one of the larger challenges over the 40-odd years of conservation science; we often just do ecological research and call it conservation. This is understandable as we can use ecological research to quantify the threats to ecological systems, and even create a suite of recommendations for conservation action. But it’s the next step that is so complex and challenging; how to convert these plans into impactful action on the ground with people who may care not a whit for animals or ecosystems, or have bigger challenges in their lives than prioritising wildlife.

This is especially so in developing nations, where often local people’s experience of conservation involves outsiders coming in for relatively short periods of time, spending bundles on animals, but nothing on the people that co-exist with or depend on wildlife everyday. Or, we ask them to forgo aspirations for the luxuries, consumables and security that developed nations live with, in the name of saving animals. Basically, what we’re asking them is both unrealistic and unfair, and undermines the conservation effort before it’s started, as local buy-in and ownership is lost.

Mind the gap

Kirstie Ruppert/SDZG

Perhaps part of this challenge comes from the training streams many of us went through in University and Graduate educations. There is often a heavy emphasis on science, scientific rigor, research, modeling and statistical significance, and little else besides. That prepares us beautifully to research species to extinction. However, it does little to prepare us with a world-view and metrics of success more aligned to true, sustainable conservation practice: project management; communications and marketing; fundraising; financial accounting; cultural sensitivity/social science; community engagement or, people and management skills. Nor are we left with a sense of the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches. We are often thrust wholly unprepared into these tasks when implementing conservation projects and programmes. There is a mismatch between the skills taught, and the skills needed to enact conservation in the field.

This is, however, starting to change. Especially over the past 5-10 years, with numerous leading Universities around the world now teaching curricula that is more focused on interdisciplinary approaches, applied conservation and sustainability; better preparing graduates with applicable skills, while not neglecting the science. Plus there is a growing realisation of the importance of people in conservation.

Building bridges

These changes are evidenced in two growing, positive and buzzworthy trends in conservation. First, community-based and community-involved conservation programmes (programmes that actively involve and build capacity among the people living closest and co-existing with wildlife) have grown across the world since the turn of the century. Second, the more recent phenomenon of a great focus on hope and positivity around conservation and conservation achievements. We all know how miserable a Danny or Debbie-downer can be, and us conservationists have been serious bummers, dude. Why on Earth would people want to engage with such a morose and serious bunch, especially in the age of cat videos and SnapChat?

These two changes, plus a greater acceptance of multi-disciplinary and applied research are some of the most important trends I see in conservation. This is not to


David O'Connor/SDZG

trivialise the grave nature of the challenges wildlife and ecosystems face. Humans are not good at addressing long-term, temporally and geographically remote possibilities (look at the problems we have saving enough for retirement, and that directly affects us for Christ sakes!). With that in mind, it is refreshing to see new approaches being used and witness their early positive impacts.

I applaud and encourage conservation initiatives that come with energy and brightness. Those that actively engage, involve, learn from and feedback to the communities that co-exist with the wildlife we care about. Even better, initiatives that hire community members (collecting field data following a protocol isn’t rocket science), and re-invest directly back to these communities, so they can directly benefit from a species or system.

Thus, local communities can actually see, feel and value these direct benefits and will more often than not protect the source of these benefits; the wildlife or species of conservation focus. It’s messy, it’s hard, and it involves people with a spectrum of motivations and attitudes. But, when it works, when it really works, sweet Jimmeny it’s a beautiful thing.

I urge you to find it too.