Can you tell us about your research and the kind of conservation you do?
The kind of conservation that we do is mostly about changing people’s behaviour, so a lot of it is about the ways in which people use wildlife, for example, hunting it and eating it. Often, when conservationists get involved, they are concerned about the sustainability of these practices and want to change the way that people think and behave.
It is important to consider this at a range of different levels. You need to consider how individuals think about their wildlife and how they might be persuaded to change their practices, what kind of costs they might incur by making any changes and then design conservation interventions that are acceptable to the people whose behaviour you’re trying to change.
But you also have to think about the system in which they are embedded: how socially acceptable is the behaviour change you are asking them to adopt? Are there constraints that mean they cannot change their behaviour because otherwise they won’t have food or their lives will be adversely affected in other ways?
Then you have to think more broadly, about the wider institutions that are involved. For example, how do you help firms to reduce their impact on biodiversity, or how do you help conservation organisations to design things more effectively? That’s what we do, working at all these different levels.
In your experience, when conservationists plan interventions to try to bring about behaviour change, what are some of the barriers they face?
Depending on the area in which they are working, I think conservationists often fail to consider what might be stopping people from changing their behaviour and the things that mean that it’s actually quite difficult. Even in this country, for example, maybe you want to recycle but you can’t because something is not recyclable. If you’re thinking about wild meat, bush meat for example, it is fine to say that you will provide an alternative livelihood, but people have still got to eat proteins. If they’re living in a very remote place where there’s no access to domestic protein, what are they supposed to do?
Also, conservationists tend not to think forwards enough about the potential unintended consequences of what they’re doing. For example, a conservationist might think that by offering an alternative livelihood there will be a shift away from consuming bushmeat without considering that if you’re also increasing people’s income then they’ll probably want to eat more meat (people tend to want to eat more meat when they have more income). Or if there are new economic opportunities in an area because of ecotourism, for example, even if people are generally eating less meat per person, if more people are coming in, overall consumption may rise.
Conservationists often don’t think enough about themselves as part of the system. They think they’re external to the system and are coming in to try to change it, but in fact by their presence they are part of that system and their activities can often have unintended consequences.
You’re passionate about the conservation ecology of the Saiga antelope in Central Asia. Where did this particular passion come from?
Saiga tartarica. Image: Navinder Singh (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Well, I think for most conservationists it’s a bit contingent, isn’t it? In my case, my dad was a Professor of Russian Art and Literature, so I was always interested in Russia and the Soviet Union. As a PhD student, I was working on ivory and rhino horn, and I found out that Saiga antelope was a substitute for rhino horn. I’d always wanted a reason to go to Russia and to the Soviet Union, and there it was. When I got there, I just thought what an amazing place and what an amazing species and stuck with it!
In terms of conservation, what do you consider as a high point in your career and, conversely, what do you consider as a low point?
Ha ha! Well, I can give you two examples related to saiga conservation.
A high point was when we got the Convention on Migratory Species MOU and Work Programme agreed. I’d always been a little sceptical about the role of international organisations and conventions in conservation. I thought they were basically just talking shops that didn’t have much to do with what happens on the ground. But in fact, I’m the Technical Adviser to the CMS on the saiga, and I realised how important it was to have this convening place where governments, NGOs and academics could all get together and really agree on what the problems were and what needed to be done and prioritise them.
A UN convention really does mean something, particularly to governments, and building that community where we’re all on the same page about what needs to be done was really important. I guess I was proud to be the person who’s been helping to develop that action plan over the years – it’s been going for 10 years or more now, and it really has helped people to come together and agree a joint plan and then get behind it.
And a low point for you?
Well, our low point was in 2015. We were just starting to see Saigas recovering when they were hit by a huge outbreak of disease which killed more than 60% of the world’s population of the species in just two weeks. It was awful and tragic, but even then, the benefit of having a community to mobilise allowed us to all get together and try to work out what had happened. The paper that came out last week (January, 2018) was a great example of people from all over the world working together to try to understand things and collaborate – from government, NGOs and academics to funders coming in with emergency funds. That was a real positive amongst all the gloom.
What do you see as the greatest current challenges for conservation?
I think the greatest challenge for conservation is that conservationists are not seen as fundamental to the survival of the human race! And we should be, because we are.
I don’t think conservation and the environment is mainstream in international, national and regional discourse, or even in personal discourse. People don’t realise that as a species we need to change fundamentally and do it soon. That’s not just about climate change, or pollution, or energy and waste – though all of those are important of course. It is about saving our wild spaces, our nature, our wildlife. That needs to be done urgently, and we’re running out of time to do it.
I don’t think we have very long to start changing things, so the challenge for conservationists is to stay positive and focused and to avoid the temptation to run around like headless chickens in a blind panic! At the same time, we have to communicate that this is something that everyone has to be involved with, and that we all have to make changes. So for me that’s the big challenge that we really haven’t grasped over the last 30 or 40 years. There are lots of little things that have gone better, but we’re not changing the fundamentals of the system.
I think people see wildlife and biodiversity as something nice to have, a luxury rather than an essential part of the functioning of