By Tibor Hartel
Conservationists aim to protect ecological systems, species and habitats. This becomes crucial especially in recent times when an increased amount of data suggests that human condition is (tightly) linked to environmental condition. But how much evidence supports our conservation action? And how much evidence is generated by our conservation actions? Is there any need for evidence to conserve biological diversity? What types of evidences exist and which is the most trustful one?
It is ca. eight years now when the first paper calling for the need of evidence based conservation was published by William Sutherland and his co-authors (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2004) and the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation was established at Bangor University. As in medicine, an improved, objective and systematized review of scientific evidence may highly contribute to increased efficiency of conservation interventions and projects on natural systems, habitats and species. Sutherland and his colleagues wrote: ‘current conservation practice faces the same problems as did old-fashioned medical practice. For example, most of discussions are not based upon evidence but upon anecdotal sources’. To illustrate this, Sutherland and his colleagues present sources of information used by conservation practitioners in Broadland, UK: 32% of them used ‘common sense’ information, 22% personal experience, 20% gathered information by talking to other managers in the region, 10% of them used expert advisers and 2% used primary scientific literature. They also noted that ‘very little evidence is collected on the consequences of current practice so that future decisions cannot be based upon the experience of what does or does not work’.
Sutherland and his colleagues suggest a structure for creating evidence based websites. This database contain information about the country, site name, name of the contributor, habitat category, details about habitat, type of the problem, species involved, conservation action taken (with description), consequences of action (including problems, failures) and mentioning if information comes from an analysis or is subjective opinion.
If incorporated in policy and funding mechanisms for conservation projects, the concept of evidence based conservation may largely enhance learning, efficientize fund allocation and ultimately conservation measures. In a recent paper Diana Bowler and her colleagues (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2011) systematically evaluated the effectiveness of community forest management programs (CFM`s). In CFM projects local communities are actively involved in the management of the (their) forests. They found that many indicators of global environmental benefits were not associated with the CFM programmes. There was no evidence that the CFM projects substantially impact human welfare. The lack of rigorously designed studies and data collection through various CFM projects harder the evidence base for CMF projects. Heather Tallis and her colleagues (PNAS, 2008) assessed 32 projects funded by the World Bank (1993-2007 period). These projects aimed to increase biodiversity conservation and human welfare. They found that true ‘win-win’ situations (i.e. projects from which both nature and people benefited) were scarce. Most of them were in the ‘gain-no gain’ category (i.e. one of the parts [nature or people] benefited while the other not) and in the ‘no gain-no gain’ category. ‘There are enough projects in place around the world that if some simple metrics were collected on each, it would be possible to treat these efforts as a grand experiment’, they say.
At the end, I inevitably think about Romania. There would be many potentially interesting questions / issues, and I mention just one. The ‘Life programme’ is a major EU financial instrument to support environmental and nature conservation projects. 51 Life projects have been financed in this country of which 34 are focusing on nature conservation. The total investment is 31.3 million Euro, of which 17.9 was provided by the European Union. How much evidence useful for conservation was created through these projects? Given the huge amount of money involved I think a systematized review of these projects based on reports and interviews, using the framework presented in the Bowler et al. (2004) research would greatly efficientize Life projects in this country.
Personal thoughts about evidence based conservation wellcome.