Updated: Feb 17, 2021
I truly believe that practices in the UK and international conservation sector aren’t, and shouldn’t be, all that different. In a previous blog, I explained why I believe UK restoration and rewilding projects should use experience and frameworks developed in international conservation to improve the success of projects in the UK. After all, both are trying to achieve the same things. Below are five approaches conservationists in the UK can borrow from international conservation managers to prevent project teams from reinventing the wheel.
1) Right place, right time Identifying the right areas to invest in is critical to success and international NGOs are often to forced to prioritise some sites over others. Sites are prioritised based on many factors depending on the goals of the project but many common features include; their existing ecological value; connectivity to the wider landscape; the existing (or potential) numbers of flagship habitats or species, and; the level of local support for conservation.
This approach means taking into account where the largest/healthiest national population of a species occurs, future threats to the site (e.g. climate change), and crucially whether there is local interest in a project (either from a locally based NGO, government or the public).
2) People = power Working at scale means thinking about the landscape outside of protected area. Many species rely on being able to move between core habitat areas or indeed, use a variety of habitats within landscapes which include those which have been modified by humans.
International conservation professionals on the whole agree that, where possible, a fences down approach (as opposed to the fences up/people out approach of the late 20th century) is desirable. Recognising that people are a part of the natural world, this means projects must account for the needs and impacts of people.
Ultimately the international conservation sector know that people matter. And people’s opinions matter. The (perhaps unfortunate) truth is that conservation cannot succeed in the modern world without the support of people and communities. Local support of any conservation project is crucial if it’s to have long term impact on places and wildlife.
People power extends to politics too. Unfortunately we can't avoid politics if we want to achieve our goals. International organisations prioritise regions, countries and area where there's political will. There's definitely appetite in the UK political sphere to explore rewilding as a potential solution for example, so conservationists should capitalise on this moment to collect evidence, test concepts and get politicians on side.
3) Mind over matter
Traditionally, us conservationists are ‘doers’ and we pride ourselves on this. And so we should! But if project managers can learn just one lesson from the international NGOs it’s that you must have a purpose, and you must have a strategy.
Donors and doers in the international sector have long realised that you can get more ‘bang for your buck’ if you direct your precious resources in the right way. For example should teams spend all week planting a woodland when real gains can be made by cleverly managing over-grazing of saplings by wild ungulates?
By really interrogating your approaches, you can ensure your activities are responding to a need. In the above example, germination was not the issue, sapling survival was; so the activities were not addressing the actual issue threat.
Project managers working for international organisations use tools such as theory of change. This approach (typically including staff and stakeholders in planning and designing projects) can rapidly improve the strategy and ultimate effectiveness of your project, avoiding years of misplaced effort as a result of traditional wait-and-see approaches.
4) Demonstrate success For decades the international sector concentrated on their actions but not on their results as is common in UK conservation today. However, there's been a silent revolution over the last ten years; donors want results and exactly how many birds you ringed or schools you visited is beside the point. What they want to know is what you have achieved; what's changed?
I predict in the coming years this results led expectation is likley to spread among the UK donor community too. But 'results' don't just matter to donors, they matter to your peers, whether people are aware of it or not. The old addage is that actions speak louder the words and you can get more people on board if you can demonstrate the change you're making, just look at Knepp as an example.
Further (and as discussed in a previous blog) results matter to politicians and if the rewilding movement is to realise it's ambitious goals in the UK, more projects need to prove their worth. Because the main this holding politicians back from supporting rewilders through either policy or finance is the lack of evidence that rewildling can deliver all it promises.
On top of this, showing the mutual benefits for flood defences, land management and sustainable agriculture will only strengthen the case to shift the rewilding movement beyond a handful of projects to a recognised and widely applied land use.
The international sector routinely demonstrates what they call their 'pathway to success' through clever project planning and impact monitoring (more on that in a future blog). Both of which can be simple and pragmatic to achieve.
Join forces I once read on Twitter that everyone was ‘jumping on the rewilding bandwagon’. Well good! Hitch up, invite your friends, invite your families and invite your foes. We need to put tribalism aside – we’re all pulling in the same direction. Focus on shared solutions and commonalities between organisations and between people that may not agree with you or your approach.
There is a way forward the Cambridge Conservation Forum, and its daughter organisation the Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a great example of this. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a coalition of international organisations (such as Birdlife and the RSPB) all based in one building striving to collaborate and drive forward together. This is despite the fact each organisation takes different approaches to conservation and all compete for the same limited funding.
Similalrly the newly formed Scottish Rewilding Alliance is a coalition of (at the time of writing) 17 member organisations, each working differently but toward the same goal. These organisations aim to leverage eachother and support eachother to amplify their shared voice as rewildling advocates.
These umbrella coalitions are providing a great example to all UK conservationists who are notorious for squabbling and tribalism. Conservation organisations may take different approaches but are likely to share a common vision for nature, so we should aim help eachother along the way.
While the UK and Europe may seem a million miles away from tropical rainforest conservation the approaches and challenges utilised by conservation professionals aren't so different. I believe now is the time to more closely align (and learn from) the wide-ranging experience of the conservation international sector.
So my advice for UK conservaton projects who want to do this is to;
Think beyond you reserve borders, who will you impact and how does your project fit into the landscape or seascape? Is it the right place?
Include communities from the outset. Are you imposing a vision or sharing it? Most projects fall down because they fail to involve key stakeholders during the concept stage of the project – that is no way to win hearts and minds.
Show the politicians (and donors) what you're achieving through monitoring. And where you can, demonstrate mutual benefits for flood defences, human health and agriculture.
Dedicate time to strategically planning your projects – it will pay off. Project planning is also a fantastic way to agree a shared vision with local people (mentioned above) and donors love it, so you’ll be a step ahead of your competition!
Talk to each other. The past doesn’t have to define the future. Look for organisations or people (including international colleagues) who have the experience you need, and make the connection so you can learn from them. And maybe even work together.