New study identifies barriers to conservation success

December 11, 2019

Inability to find or retain skilled staff and issues around local community buy-in are just some of the hurdles preventing conservation charities from achieving their goals, a ground-breaking new study has found.

The research was the first of its kind to systematically catalogue and categorise the obstacles into distinct groups.

Some of the problems identified included funding issues, inadequate leadership, and a lack of strategy, with conservationists instead constantly having to operate in 'crisis mode'.

The paper's lead author, Michele Sanders, said: "We suggest that this typology could form the basis of heuristic tools that conservationists can use to identify and manage potential risks to their projects, thereby improving decision making, strategic planning, and, ultimately, overall impact - not just in the conservation sector but across all charities. Funders could also use it to improve their due diligence and expectation management."

The research was based on interviews with 74 conservation charity directors and senior officials, mostly working in South Africa and Kenya between October 2012 and December 2014. These countries were chosen because their rich wildlife is under increasing threat despite the large number of conservation charities operating there.

More than 80 per cent of those interviewed said finding and keeping skilled and experienced staff was a problem. They said ambitious conservationists often leave charities for better pay, perks, and a chance of travel in the private sector. One interviewee added conservationists are expected to be a jack-of-all-trades: understanding ecological processes while also comprehending complex socioeconomic and political interactions.

Nearly two thirds recognised the challenges of securing support from communities on the ground.

One interviewee pointed out the concept of 'conservation' could be alien to locals, while another said poverty can prevent it from being a viable choice for them. Broken promises and displacement in the name of conservation were also highlighted.

A number of people - particularly in South Africa - felt it was extremely challenging to find effective leaders. Many described conservation efforts as lacking strategy, often operating in crisis mode.

Considering the urgency of new and emerging threats, they felt there was a lack of resources available to develop strategies. This meant that while charities were clear about what they wanted to achieve, it was less obvious how they could go about it.

The paper, which was the work of researchers from the University of Oxford, The Open University and Synchronicity Earth, has been published in Oryx, the journal of Fauna & Flora International.

According to Michele: "Conservation is essential because we need to protect what is left.

"In my lifetime, we've lost 60 per cent of wildlife populations, and still we keep taking and destroying. Not only are we crossing planetary boundaries that could be impossible to recover from, but it's just wrong to put ourselves so far away from nature to think we can just abuse and waste it.

"The sector receives $1.1 billion dollars of aid from government and multilateral agencies annually, but biodiversity continues to dwindle. Perhaps if the sector was enabled to act more strategically by better allocation of funding, we could achieve so much more.

"Nature is wonderful and wildlife essential. We need to protect it both for ourselves and for the generations to come."
Notes to editors:

1. Paper details: Conservation conversations: A typology of barriers to conservation success. Michele Jeanette Sanders, Alex Rogers, Laura Miller, Shonil A. Bhagwat. Oryx. DOI:

2. About the author: Michele Jeanette Sanders is a freelance consultant and a former Head of Risk and Due Diligence at the conservation charity, Synchronicity Earth. While at the University of Oxford, she undertook research into how funders of wildlife conservation choose which organisations to support, how internal and external barriers to conservation can affect effectiveness, and how funder due diligence processes can be improved.

3. About Oryx: Oryx - The International Journal of Conservation is a quarterly peer-reviewed journal of biodiversity conservation, conservation policy and sustainable use, and the interaction of these subjects with social, economic and political issues. The journal has a particular interest in material that has the potential to improve conservation management and practice, supports the publishing and communication aspirations of conservation researchers and practitioners worldwide and helps build capacity for conservation. Besides articles and short communications, Oryx regularly publishes reviews, forum sections and letters, and every issue includes comprehensive reporting of international conservation news.

4. About Cambridge University Press: Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University's mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 50,000 titles covering academic research and professional development, as well as school-level education and English language teaching. Playing a leading role in today's international marketplace, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.?

Cambridge University Press

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