Why should we care about ethics in conservation?

Stephanie Brittain

When imagining a stereotypical conservationist, people may think that we spend our time running around the forests counting chimpanzees. However, conservationists increasingly appreciate the need to understand the role of humans in conservation issues, or learn from how some have successfully protected an area or species from ongoing or emerging threats. Conservationists now commonly use a plethora of social research methods to tackle highly complex and interdisciplinary conservation issues, and gain a deeper understanding and context behind trends in species populations, identify changing and emerging threats or understand the demand for wildlife products.

The question is whether we have equipped ourselves enough to do this type of research properly and ethically? This shift towards interdisciplinary research has resulted in many researchers, often from a natural sciences background, employing social science methods such as questionnaires, interviews or focus groups without adequate training. Working with people from different cultures, countries or backgrounds can result in a range of ethical challenges that are not commonly encountered when conducting purely ecological research. A lack of proper training and understanding of the potential for ethical dilemmas is leading to negligence within our sector

Ethical dilemmas in conservation

Current ethical guidelines within conservation are borrowed from other fields such as anthropology, criminology and geography, yet conservation as a field is value-driven. For example, anthropological research may use interviews or participant observation to gather knowledge and understanding on hunting practices, while conservation research may gather the same knowledge, but with the ultimate aim to change people’s behaviours and livelihoods. As a consequence, the sets of ethical challenges we face may be entirely different from anthropology or other academic disciplines. 

We also often fail to understand the context in which we operate and the broader ethical implications our actions may have as a result. The current ethical guidance for interdisciplinary conservation research is often incomplete or inappropriate, and at worst existing protocols such as ethical review forms are viewed as a box-ticking exercise. Further, it is usually young, early career researchers who conduct research in the field and encounter these issues, with a lack of clarity in how to tackle them. This can lead to stressful and unwanted situations for both the researcher and the people involved in the research.

This is a critical time to be thinking much harder about conservation ethics and our impact in the field. Conservation is facing greater scrutiny, with increasing criticism of conservation, in particular regarding militarised conservation, as well as disturbing reports of mistreatment of local people by conservation NGO’s. We urgently need to listen to these issues, grasp the opportunity to highlight the ongoing problems and bridge the gap to improve conservation ethics.

At this year's Interdisciplinary Conservation Network (ICN) workshop, hosted in Oxford this July, a group of early career researchers with training in different fields but all working on conservation came together to identify areas for improvement in conservation ethics and discuss how to overcome those barriers. The session was led by myself (Stephanie Brittain) and Harriet Ibbett, with Jerome Lewis from University College London as our mentor. We based our discussions on a series of real-life case studies, whereby field researchers had encountered ethical dilemmas which they did not feel fully equipped to handle. The conversations were vibrant and stimulating and we are now working on a discussion piece to highlight the critical issues discussed during the workshop (so watch this space)!

Respecting human participants in our work is the moral and ethically right thing to do. Conservation should not be coerced, or it will never succeed. We need to understand the current barriers to ethical conservation research to reduce our impact on participants, improve the success of our work, and improve the reputation of our discipline as a whole.

A group photo of all ICN 2018 attendees.
A group photo of all ICN 2018 attendees.