The Devil in the Detail of Biodiversity Conservation


Conservation biologists are confronted with a number of basic questions in their quest to conserve the earth's biological resources. I have distilled these to the following:

  • • What are we trying to conserve?
  • • Where are the most important places in which to conserve it?
  • • How should we go about doing conservation?
  • • Who can best carry out conservation?

Unfortunately, despite broad agreement on global conservation goals, working on the details of conservation has more often than not resulted in conflict within the conservation movement and divided conservationists to the detriment of what they are trying to accomplish. This conflict has often been to the advantage of those who wish to discredit the conservation movement. It is clear to me that there is a devil in the detail of biodiversity conservation.

Answering the first question—What are we trying to conserve?—has probably been the easiest and has engendered the greatest amount of agreement. Biodiversity is the conservation target for governments, U.N. institutions, development agencies, and, of course, conservation organizations. It has become so omnipresent that there is an entire international convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, devoted to it. Yet even with broad agreement, biodiversity has been defined in many ways, many often vague and difficult to assess (Redford & Richter 1999). It is this vagueness that makes it difficult to determine the where, how, and who of biodiversity conservation.

Attempting to identify the most important places in which to conserve biodiversity has led conservation biologists to develop strategic, science-based methodologies for establishing conservation priorities. These methodologies have generally addressed threat and species numbers ( Myers et al. 2000 ) and representation ( Olson & Dinerstein 1998 ). The disturbing side of developing such methodologies has been their marketing. We have seen the production of large picture books supporting megadiversity countries and hotspots, and we have seen posters of representational ecoregions with quotes from learned professionals touting the approach as the most important breakthrough in biodiversity conservation. These are the materials that are used to convince the donor ( and voting ) public and government and institutional funders that the scientific community is lined up in support of a specific method and, by inference, that it is better than the rest. This promotion of one method over another in the race for donor funding has been counterproductive. Luckily, the overlap between different methods of deciding where biodiversity should be conserved is extensive, and a number of organizations have adopted the geographical priorities of others, recognizing that the time and resources required to invent another method of establishing biodiversity conservation priorities would be a waste.

The real problems start with the question of how should we go about doing conservation. Today, more than ever, we are seeing a plethora of conservation approaches, ranging from calls for more intensive protection ( Oates 1999; Terborgh et al. 2002 ) to greater community control over biodiversity conservation ( Western & Wright 1994; Hulme & Murphree 2001 ). In most cases these approaches are scientifically sound and have the common goal of conserving biological diversity. So far, so good. The problem is in the race for funding.

Conservation organizations have tended to promote and market their own single solutions to biodiversity conservation problems at the expense of other approaches. Such a strategy is dangerous. It is unusual for such approaches to have undergone extensive field-testing. More often than not they are based on a set of theories about how we would like conservation to work, and the assumptions upon which these theories are based are rarely explicitly acknowledged. As we have seen over the years, one can shoot holes in almost any of the approaches tried to date.

For example, protected areas are a core component of biodiversity conservation. Yet the method for establishing protected areas is fraught with difficulties. The process usually has involved removing those people living on the newly protected land, often without compensation and sometimes by force. In almost all cases, the result is a park surrounded by people who were excluded from the planning of the area, do not understand its purpose, derive little or no benefit from the money poured into its creation, and hence do not support its existence. As a result, local communities develop a lasting distrust of park authorities, in part because of the glaring lack of attention those authorities, supported by conservationists, have paid to the link between park ecology, the survival of wildlife, and the livelihood of displaced people.

Out of the experience with protected areas came the development of integrated conservation and development projects, or ICDPs, through which it was believed that conservation would be more successful if the focus was on the welfare of communities in and around protected areas. Encouraged by the frantic quest for examples of sustainable development, ICDPs exploded in popularity, rapidly advancing from an untested idea attracting seed money to “best practice” for biodiversity conservation. The fact that conservation organizations were perhaps not suited to work in the social and economic realms was missed in all the excitement. Successes have been few and far between, and today an expanding barrage of mostly critical literature has fuelled concern among organizations implementing and financing ICDPs.

The problems experienced with protected areas and ICDPs have resulted in conservation organizations developing a number of new approaches. These have grown out of the limitations of simple site-based project activities. These new, more complex approaches are attempting to “vertically integrate” site-based projects, surrounding land uses, and policy initiatives. A major challenge for these emerging landscape- or ecoregion-scale approaches will be to position other complementary conservation activities operating on a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Although these approaches are in their infancy, it already seems clear that their success will depend on the links between their constituent parts. In the first analysis of its kind, Redford and colleagues show in this issue of Conservation Biology that there is greater overlap between approaches than was perhaps generally believed. This argues for a broad range of biodiversity conservation tools being available and, more important, marketed by all organizations; simple, one-organization solutions will not work.

Perhaps most critical, these efforts to conserve biodiversity cannot be made in isolation. They must involve effective partnerships to address the larger-scale problems that defy local solutions. This leads us to the last question: Who has the experience most appropriate to doing the conservation? Traditionally, conservation organizations have been reluctant to collaborate among themselves or with other professions. This go-it-alone mentality has often been the result of the perceived need for different groups to have their own easily identified portfolios of projects that can be marketed to prospective donors. This has resulted in endless claims and counterclaims over conservation approaches that are themselves a sort of territorial battle of knowledge and experience—a way to show the donors who does conservation right, and best. Such ownership has promoted a lack of collaboration and partnership. It has also fostered in organizations an unwillingness to try a range of approaches; they rely instead on those developed in-house and vigorously defend them from any competing method.

It is clear, however, that as conservation approaches have become greater in scale and broader in context, conservation organizations do not have all the skills necessary to get the job done. McShane and Newby ( 2003) found that many of the constraints on biodiversity conservation involved issues with which conservationists tended to be inexperienced or uncomfortable. Conservation organizations must work harder at reaching out within their own profession and to other disciplines. Recently, collaboration and the development of partnerships has moved beyond rhetoric. Newly developed partnerships include the World Wildlife Fund (  WWF  ) and CARE in East Africa and Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and WWF in the Congo Basin. At the policy level, Conservation International and WWF have written the World Bank (with whom they both have a partnership ) expressing concern over proposed changes to the bank's operational policy for forests. By bringing together a number of different conservation organizations to look at many of the existing approaches to conserving biodiversity, Redford et al. ( 2003 )  have taken an important step in promoting such coordination and collaboration. These are all moves in the right direction, but collaboration must be maintained and nurtured. The issues of funding, fundraising, and project ownership must be part of the process.

Biodiversity conservation's devil is the competition for donor funding. We all know that successful biodiversity conservation requires money. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of funds, conservation organizations find themselves making claims based on little more than theory. This marketing of conservation approaches has resulted in a dogmatic debate, outwardly over how best to conserve the world's biodiversity, which is a necessary question, but behind the scenes over how to get the funds before someone else does, which is not. Conservation organizations and the conservation biologists that work for them must look closely at themselves. We all know what we want to conserve, and we broadly agree on where we should be doing conservation. We have a number of approaches to help us do the work, and we know that we are not expert at everything that needs to be done. It is time for the conservation community to put organizational competition aside and work together for biodiversity conservation. There are a few good examples beginning, and we must be build on these.