Evidence based conservation: an always actual issue?

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.


Bowler, D. E. et al. 2011. Does community forest management provide global environmental benefits and improve local welfare? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, in press.

Sutherland, W.J. et al. 2004. The need for evidence based conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19: 305-308.

Tallis, H. et al. 2008. An ecosystem services framework to support both practical conservation and economic development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 9457-9464.


9 thoughts on “Evidence based conservation: an always actual issue?

  1. I would argue the type of databases proposed (and at least in the context of Nepal, co-developed) by Poteete and ostrom (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X0700188X) are a step in the right direction.

    I don’t know Sutherland et al., but speaking broadly, I find conservation biologists too quick to dismiss experience-based and quasi-anecdotal work or management. After all, people understand things very often through narratives. One of the challenges I’ve faced in my work is that once one has abstracted empirical research into general theories, a huge amount of work must be done to “de-abstract” it for practitioners in specific cases. I find it absolutely no surprise that few practitioners place primary literature high on their list. Indeed, I would challenge scientists/experts not involved with original studies to use primary literature as a blueprint for policy-making in specific cases.

    I haven’t figured out how to resolve this tension (empirical, published research tends to be about abstracting to general principles; practice must be based on specific and often idiosyncratic situations, such that even with sound grounding in general principles, a lot of guesswork and intuition must be made–general principles must be made concrete, most often via… anecdote.)

  2. Hi Jahi – many thanks for this comment. While reading the Sutherland paper, I was thinking about similar things as well.

    Molnar Zsolt and his colleagues study the traditional ecological knowledge of Csango people in Eastern Carpathians. They found out that traditional farmers have a knowledge which is non significantly different from the expert botanists and ecologists. Therefore, traditional ecological knowledge can be a valuable data source for historical ecology and conservation biology. I think this finding can be by itself strong evidence for conservationists.

    But how general this is? My feeling is that it may not be that general. At least in Saxon Transylvania, the ‘cultural memory’ is not that deep anymore – since the saxons gone. I think, we need to create scientific evidence to understand into what extent local knowledge here can be useful for cons biology, and what extent not.

    Policy making tend to be based more on ‘expert’ knowledge than in ‘farmer Joe’ knowledge. This may not be wrong – but I would suggest openness from policy makers toward local knowledge, but also more emphasis of small interdisciplinary teams (ecologists, anthropologists, enthnographers) to assess this local knowledge and ecological systems to be useful for policy. A kind of bidirectional thing.

    I think that if we extend the paletta of evidence based conservation to include people as well (so: they knowledge evaluated) it can be a way to include local knowledge.

    I wrote some thoughts about traditional knowledge and expert knowledge here: https://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/knowledge-types-and-conservation-biology-in-complex-rural-landscapes/

    It is interesting feeling I have: while ecologists may have different (and many times contrasting) opinions about the mission of their own discipline (see Neff paper in Frontiers, 2011), the traditional ecological knowledge of people from a locality or a cluster of similar villages may not be so different. This is speculation, but if it is true, then we, scientists should be careful how we design studies and what we want to ‘demonstrate’ because we may skew informations and knowledge towars our own vision…

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  5. Policy making tend to be based more on ‘expert’ knowledge than in ‘farmer Joe’ knowledge. This may not be wrong – but I would suggest openness from policy makers toward local knowledge, but also more emphasis of small interdisciplinary teams (ecologists, anthropologists, enthnographers) to assess this local knowledge and ecological systems to be useful for policy. A kind of bidirectional thing.”

    I agree of course that bidirectionality is key. And my mentor John Vandermeer has been suggesting this kind of idea for a while. But I wonder to what extent “expert knowledge” is actually more relevant for policy-making than “local” (we might say “practical” — as in ‘from practice’) knowledge. Expert knowledge, by definition, is general, and local is, well, local. No doubt most (perhaps all) situations require some of both, but our policy-making is, to my mind, almost entirely too focused on expert knowledge–both by dint of experts’ societal power and closer network ties with policy makers, and by dint of political systems that concentrate power “up”.

    I of course recognize the utility of expert knowledge–being my own trade, in fact–but I often think of Latour (and other’s) point that the production of expert/academic knowledge inevitably requires pulling general principles out of specific contexts. But, is there continued reason to believe that general principles will yield wise governance, when socioecological systems seem to display such a high degree of idiosyncrasy?

    My (perhaps cheesy) example:
    “If I told you to climb a mountain, and bring me a flower from the highest point, and you would die after completing this task, would that be meaningless?”
    “Of course. It’s trivial.”
    “And if there are a million people waiting at the base of that mountain, to whom that one flower was a symbol of their freedom, and they would follow that symbol and your death into a struggle that would liberate half a billion souls, would that have a meaning?”
    “You see, we create the meaning in our lives. It does not exist independently. ”
    — Rastenn and elder Turval, rangers, in Babylon 5 episode “Learning Curve”

    How are (non-local) experts to know the flower of meaning from the mundane flower? If it makes sense to “sacrifice” the flower of meaning for the greater good, will an expert or policy-maker regularly be aware of, or able to appropriately express, what they’re truly asking for?

    There’s much to be said for experts, but I think beyond the “small teams” you speak of, we need to think of, perhaps, “rooted teams.” That is, experts who are trained in general principles, but at some point, spend years, a career, a lifetime–working in a given system, *with* the people of that system. And indeed, democracy demands working with and hearing from local people, as does common sense–Judith Layzer’s new edition of “The Environmental Case” emphasizes yet again that people do not view decisions as legitimate if they are not part of the process. So at root, I guess that’s my critique of expertise: it *may* be scientifically valid in a local context, but it will never be *socially* valid without local consent/participation, no matter the scientific basis. Whereas local knowledge *can* be both socially and politically valid, and can be reinforced by expert knowledge. Local (knowledge, participation, decisions) is not necessarily better, or always valid, but: in any (and I believe practically every) case, it is nevertheless NOT optional.

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