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.
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 use it around the world, whether you’re in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, or the UK. At the other extreme are social interventions, where you want to change behaviour, influence how a community think about conservation or carry out education activities. In those cases, evidence from New Zealand or Papua New Guinea may well be a lot less relevant to the UK because their societies are so different. So, we need to increase ways in which we can transfer evidence across the world, and that is a key objective of the Conservation Evidence project.
In a lot of the most biodiverse places on Earth – places like the Congo Basin, Papua New Guinea, the Deep seas – there must be less evidence to call upon in the first place, due to the difficulty of working in those locations and other external factors?
Absolutely. And that’s a real tragedy. Generally, the more biodiverse a country is, the less conservation evidence there is, and we need to find ways of changing that. One serious problem is that when people review the literature, in any field, they tend to look primarily at English-language studies. But we’ve shown that around 35 per cent of the conservation literature is not in English. So, a lot of the evidence, especially that from the most biodiverse countries, is effectively just being ignored, because the studies don’t appear in English. So, with Conservation Evidence we’re busy trying to find ways of overcoming that:we are working with a team of people who are reading non-English language journals and providing summaries of key articles. There’s a lot of research coming out of Latin America – in Spanish and Portuguese – so this is a huge source of conservation evidence that can’t simply be overlooked.
Arguably, some donors and funding bodies put too much pressure on conservation organisations to provide quantitative impact measurement, when the reality is that conservation impact is incredibly complex and often very hard to measure. How can we help donors and foundations to understand the reality of conservation action and develop a more long-term and flexible approach to funding conservation?
I think we need to rethink what we expect to see and how we understand impact. If you were to fund a health clinic somewhere, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the people running it to show the change in health outcomes in the local community, you would just take it for granted that the community would benefit from having a health clinic. You might count the number of people that attend, the number of people that are patients and check that’s it is functioning, but after that you would probably assume it works.
I think in conservation there is a need for more – and more rigorous – tests to find out what does work, but once we understand that better, we just need to ensure that conservation initiatives are carried out. We might want to measure the fact that they’re carried out, but we don’t want or need to show that they have an impact on the population of everything or everyone involved – that’s not realistic and it’s certainly not cost-effective.
I think that sometimes there is an expectation that you can precisely demonstrate the effect of your intervention on the species that you’re trying to save, but in most cases it is simply too complicated. What is most helpful is to show that you’re carrying out interventions that are effective according to all the available evidence, and test those interventions where we currently have less understanding of what works.
There are a lot of unrealistic expectations around conservation. For example, the idea that you’re going to run an education programme and somehow show what effect that has on, for instance, a chimpanzee population: that’s just ridiculous, especially if it’s quite a small, short-term grant. So, there’s a need to be more realistic and to develop greater understanding of what we can say works and what does not.
Optimism movements currently seem to be flourishing – Earth optimism, Ocean optimism, Conservation optimism. How important do you think these movements are, in the face of so much negative environmental news, and how can we begin to change the narrative around conservation?
I think if you look at the UK, and you think about what has happened over the last few decades, you can see that there have been some enormous successes. For example: organo-phosphate poisoning has pretty much disappeared; peregrines and sparrowhawks have recovered; persecution of many mammals has declined while populations of polecats and pine martins have increased; many rivers that used to be too polluted for fish now have much lower levels of pollution and fish populations have recovered; many species have been reintroduced successfully and nature reserves are better managed. There’s a whole host of successes that I think we should celebrate. It’s great what has happened. This has generally happened through science revealing what the problems are and helping to understand the potential solutions, which has then led to changes in policy and practice to improve things, and we should certainly acknowledge and celebrate those successes.
Of course there are continuing problems in the UK: climate change, invasive species, biodiversity on farmlands is still declining, there seem to be problems with species in woodlands that we don’t fully understand, and so on. But with a bit of luck, the combination of science and putting that science into policy and practice can make a difference and begin to tackle those issues as well.
That’s the UK, but there are many other parts of the world where the picture is nothing like as rosy, particularly in tropical regions which are facing a whole series of major problems: if you’re working in tropical forests or on coral reefs, or freshwater, then it can at times seem as though there is very little good news. But I think we do need to remain positive and optimistic and believe that we can start to turn those issues around too. It is vital that we celebrate successes wherever they are happening.
What role do you think an organisation such as Synchronicity Earth can play in making conservation more effective but also in communicating the most important conservation messages?
Synchronicity Earth acknowledge that conservation is difficult but understand that the organisations they support should, wherever possible, ensure they use the available evidence and should test and learn as they go along. They funded a collation of the evidence on amphibians – that was pioneering in showing what works and what doesn’t work for a neglected group of vertebrates. My Conservation Evidence colleague Rebecca Smith collated the evidence, which was then reviewed by Helen Meredith at Synchronicity Earth. Helen’s work helped us to assess what was effective and what was not.
I also think that Synchronicity Earth has a healthy attitude to ensuring that where there are gaps in knowledge, people test things out and are tolerant of failures. There’s not an expectation that everything works, but there is an expectation that things should be tested out and what works and what doesn’t work should be documented. That’s very different from the belief that everything always has to be fantastically successful, which is simply not realistic.
Tolerance of failure and learning from it is a vital part of the process – you learn as much from failure as you do from successes. It’s one thing to test something, find that it doesn’t work, then document it and move on and learn from it, and quite another to repeatedly do something unsuccessful because you’re not basing decisions on the best available evidence. If you can provide evidence that something people thought worked does not in fact work, although it’s painful, it’s actually a valuable and useful way to spend money.
I guess one of the issues there is that conservation organisations may be afraid to admit that something doesn’t work for fear of not getting further funding?
I think from Synchronicity Earth’s point of view, it’s just making it clear that they are seeking to understand what works and what does not. You can get people to test elements of an intervention, make sure it’s based on the best evidence to start with, then if some elements don’t work you know that’s fine, you’re learning and you move on. That’s to be encouraged.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.