White-bellied heron chicks. Photo: Rebecca Pradhan
Imagine you were tasked with conserving a species, let’s say the White-bellied Heron, a Critically Endangered bird found on the river banks of Bhutan, Northeast India and Myanmar. How would you go about facing this colossal challenge? What information would you want to know? How would you know what actions to take? Who would you involve in the conservation process? The answers to these questions will undoubtedly depend on your background and expertise. Think of the difference in opinions from say, a biologist, a social scientist, a government official, or a villager from Northern India.
The reality of species conservation is that in many cases the actions taken are based on the opinions of whoever has the loudest voice or the funding to act which may not always be what is best for the species. If we are to address the extinction crisis, we need to do a lot better than this. Time is swiftly running out for threatened species, and with extremely limited resources available for conservation, it is paramount that they are used in the most effective and efficient way possible.
This sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done: how do we know what works in conservation, and how do we promote more strategic conservation action globally? Acknowledging these challenges, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has long been involved in the development of strategic plans for species conservation. At first this was mostly done through its various Species Survival Commission Specialist Groups, with plans focusing on just one species or a group of species at a time, resulting in a large variety of planning styles and varying levels of success. This prompted the IUCN to develop the Species Conservation Planning Sub-Committee (SCPSC) with the specific goal of promoting unified strategic planning for species conservation. Recognising the huge influence such a movement could have on the effectiveness of conservation action, Synchronicity Earth has been providing core support to the SCPSC since 2015.
The new ‘Guidelines for Species Conservation Planning’
Late last year, the SCPSC released a ground breaking new document: ‘Guidelines for Species Conservation Planning’. These Guidelines incorporate years of learning on species conservation into a clear and easily accessible document. Their purpose is to promote strategic planning of species conservation across all actors, with the aim of improving the effectiveness of species conservation initiatives worldwide. The only other similar document that has been produced by the IUCN was a handbook on strategic planning for species conservation released in 2008. The new Guidelines have built on this earlier document to incorporate the many new understandings developed over the intervening years on species conservation, but also to make them significantly more flexible and applicable to the vast variety of conservation initiatives being put into action globally.
They are a continuously evolving process
Significantly, these Guidelines are termed “Version 1.0”. We are still learning a lot about how to conserve species – these Guidelines are designed to be the first step in a ‘living’ document designed to evolve as our understanding and techniques do. The Guidelines will soon be developed into an online platform, and the vision is that this will eventually be the main access point for them, allowing them to be easily updated.
Not only are the Guidelines themselves designed to be constantly adapted, but they encourage a planning process which is adaptive as well. Planning is presented as a cycle, with self-assessment and adaptation playing a key role in achieving a successful outcome. Techniques are provided for testing the outcomes of different actions, and advice is given on what to do if things don’t go according to plan. This realistic approach is a vitally important aspect of the Guidelines, as it supports a system where conservation actors are continually learning from their mistakes or successes and taking these into account for future planning.
Graphic showing the species conservation planning cycle, emphasising the importance of learning and adapting conservation action. ©IUCN
They are widely applicable
The conservation world has long been affected by an imbalance of focus between different groups of species, and previous planning work is no exception. Most of the focus so far has been placed on large terrestrial mammals, with other groups such as plants, invertebrates, amphibians and fungi lacking in support. The new Guidelines have a unique design which should allow them to be applied to any species on the planet. This is quite a feat considering the innumerable variations between each species or conservation initiative. They achieve this by providing high level guidance on how to think and act when planning for species conservation, rather than recommending specific actions.
As well as being broadly applicable, they further aim to remedy the lack of information on certain “forgotten” groups by taking time to consider particular issues related to each one. For example, for plant conservation they draw attention to their usually slow growth rates and generation times making them particularly vulnerable to climate change. For both fungi and amphibians, they point out that their habitats are particularly unique – many fungi only live on specific species or require different substrates for different stages of their lives, while the large variety in amphibian breeding systems leads to a similarly complex set of different habitat requirements.
The Guidelines are also designed to be accessible by a wide range of conservation actors, from expert scientists to local communities and indigenous peoples. This is based on the principle that conservation will be more successful if a) all available types of knowledge and expertise are included in the process, and b) the wide variety of groups of people who interact with a species and its environment are involved in conservation planning from the beginning. This means forging partnerships between often starkly different groups of people that work in very different ways, which is a significant stumbling block in many conservation efforts. The Guidelines aim to bridge this gap by making it as easy as possible for multiple groups to get involved early in the process. The Guidelines are therefore written in plain and simple English, without excessive references to publications, and with plenty of examples from a range of situations.
They are realistic
There are several hard truths about species conservation which are often overlooked, or should we say, ‘wishfully ignored’ by conservation actors. The Guidelines address these head-on, and provide advice and methods for working around them:
Climate change: It has become clear over the past 10 years that climate change will impact any species conservation initiative, and so they advise the incorporation of these impacts from the beginning of the planning process. A key part of this is acknowledging that there will likely be high levels of uncertainty about how climate change will impact the species in question, which relates to the next point.
Imperfect knowledge: The Guidelines address the fact that we will never know everything we need to about a species, and for many we know very little. They therefore include instruction on how uncertainty can be handled through the process of adaptive management. Fundamentally, it is vital for conservation actors to monitor the effectiveness of their activities and be ready to change or adapt them if needed.
Funding: Very few species conservation initiatives are operating today with all the funding they need. The guidelines therefore advise on how to prioritise work when funding is limited based on the idea of return on investment. For example, a planner could set a minimum acceptable conservation threshold (e.g. recovery of the wild population to X individuals in Y years) and then choose the cheapest method that would meet that requirement.
They don’t just focus on biology: Beyond addressing the biological threats to a species, the Guidelines emphasise that it is crucial to also , whether by individuals, communities or governments. They encourage the inclusion of skills from the social sciences and psychology in the planning process so that this aspect of conservation is not forgotten.
Learning for a better future
The new Guidelines represent a huge leap forward in conservation knowledge over the past decade which can now be used to inform future action. Not only that, but one of their main objectives is to increase learning through conservation action by encouraging a cycle of learning and adaptation. As this practice grows and spreads, and the conservation community will together be able to vastly expand its knowledge base and thus its ability to conserve species.
At Synchronicity Earth we aim to support and get behind any initiative that can result in better conservation outcomes, particularly for those species which often receive less attention and funding. We think these Guidelines for Species Conservation Planning from the SPCSC are an important and exciting new tool to help achieve this goal.