An Interview with Professor Bill Sutherland

By |2018-07-25T11:44:54+00:00July 25th, 2018|Conservation, Conservation Optimism, Evidence, Interviews, Knowledge Base, Species|Comments Off on An Interview with Professor Bill Sutherland

Professor Bill Sutherland is the Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, based in the David Attenborough building (Cambridge Conservation Initiative). He is interested in conservation generally, but particularly in how we can make decision-making for conservation action more effective. Bill initiated and runs Conservation Evidence, an ongoing project to provide evidence to inform and improve conservation practice. We spoke to him to get his views on the current challenges facing the conservation sector, the need for conservation to be based on the best available evidence and his reasons for optimism.

What first attracted you to conservation?

There’s a park next to my primary school, and I was at an after-school event there – I must have been around 9 or 10 – when I saw a curious looking bird on the pond next to the school.

My brother had a bird book, so I looked it up and discovered a picture of it – it was a swan goose. I remember thinking how cool it was that you could easily identify birds using this book. That’s what first attracted my interest.

When I later became an academic, conservation largely remained just a hobby, something I did in the evenings and at weekends, but as my career progressed, I gradually became more committed to it and did more and more applied work. For the last 15 or 20 years or so, I’ve devoted myself and my work almost entirely to conservation, and trying to make a real difference to the world.

What would you see as the most urgent challenges that currently need to be addressed for conservation to both be effective and to happen at the necessary scale?

It’s a complex question that can be answered on a whole range of different levels: these are huge and challenging issues, but I think the biggest problems are still the most obvious ones. It’s habitat loss and fragmentation, especially in forests; loss of wetlands and a range of other habitats, coral reefs for example; the over-exploitation of various marine species and over-exploitation of various mammal species in tropical forests and so on. Then there are the threats posed by Invasive species and global climate change! These are the big ones that we have to deal with.

But there is another key challenge which is arguably just as important to tackle. We need to understand the importance of all these habitats for humankind, and to communicate the fact that we really do benefit from having all these forests and wetlands and coral reefs, and that it’s in everybody’s interest to find ways to protect them.

Then there are other, less well-known challenges for species conservation. One of these is the importance of governance. We published a paper in Nature a couple of weeks ago in which we describe our global analysis of waterbird populations. There was some good news: in many areas, numbers of waterbirds are increasing, they’re better protected, there’s less pollution, there’s habitat being created. But in many other areas, our research showed that populations are in steep decline, and the overwhelming explanation for this is poor governance.

There are measures of how effective governance is, the impact of corruption and so on. Our study showed that where there is good governance, species were generally doing well, and where there is poor governance, species were generally not doing so well. I think that was a very striking revelation as to what our priorities are when we are planning conservation initiatives – and it is probably not something people would immediately think of when considering challenges to effective conservation.

In a nutshell, how would you describe the problem that Conservation Evidence is trying to solve?

It’s simply the fact that we don’t know which conservation interventions are likely to be effective and which are not. There’s lots of great work being done, but it’s also clear that money is being spent on conservation actions that aren’t effective, and that we could improve our practice by better understanding what works.

If you went to a doctor 30 or 40 years ago, in the 1970s, they would use their own experience, they would talk to people and make good judgements. But different doctors would give different recommendations, as would different hospitals. There was published information available showing that some treatments were better than others, but this information wasn’t routinely being used. At that time, there wasn’t a tradition of learning what works and using that.

But that has now changed. With my doctor for example, I gather that if he recommends something that doesn’t tally with best practice, the computer will alert him to the fact that his recommendation is contradicting best practice and the available evidence. Of course, he can override it, but the assumption is that doctors carry out the interventions that are known to be most effective, unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise. And that’s really where conservation should be, but unfortunately, in many cases, we’re still stuck in the 1970s. People consult a few journals, they talk to peers and friends and they have some experience, but they’re often not using the global evidence to help them decide the best course of action. The evidence is generally out there, but we need to link conservationists to that evidence more effectively, which is where Conservation Evidence comes in.

Bill speaking at the National Biodiversity Network Conference in 2013

What are some of the contextual factors that need to be considered if you’re trying to encourage evidence-based conservation? For example: where the work is happening; the size of the organisation carrying out the intervention; the nature of the issue; the political situation and so on?

Well, this is really the cutting edge, and I think conservation is equal or perhaps even ahead of other sectors in thinking about this problem. What we need to do – and we’re busy working on this – is to find ways you can look at the global evidence base and decide how it applies to your specific context. That means assessing the relevance of different studies to the conservation problem you are trying to solve, the species you are dealing with and the country you are in. We have ways of doing that and we’re very interested in developing these further.

The importance of context varies, depending on the type of intervention you’re talking about. For invasive species, the effectiveness of the herbicide you use, for example, is likely to apply wherever you u