How do conservation efforts stack up?

Conservation initiatives are cropping up all over the planet to address escalating environmental threats and crumbling biodiversity – but what makes them reach a scale that has tangible impacts?

Helping them go viral is one answer found by an international study led by Imperial College London, published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Conservation initiatives needed to head off extinction crisis

The team saw that while an enormous amount of research on our “sixth extinction crisis” has identified threats to biodiversity and the consequences thereof, relatively little research has evaluated the adoption of conservation efforts including policies, programs and projects.

“Conservation initiatives like managing fishing resources and offsetting land for nature are critical for protecting biodiversity and the valuable ecosystems that help provide us with clean water and air,” says lead author Morena Mills.

To evaluate their success, Mills and colleagues investigated 22 diverse schemes from around the world, ranging from locally managed marine areas and community resource management initiatives to government programs, NGOs and international World Heritage sites.

The resulting database spanned terrestrial and marine ecosystems of flora and fauna managed by low- and high-income regions on local, national and international levels, from which the researchers modelled the factors that drove the spread of each initiative.

What helps conservation initiatives gain traction?

Of those tested, they found that 83% of successful schemes followed a ‘slow-fast-slow’ model – they were taken up slowly at first, then grew quickly as early adopters connect with other potential adopters.

“We found that most of these initiatives spread like a disease, where they depend on a potential adopter catching the conservation ‘bug’ from an existing one,” explains Mills.

The authors write that this insight is important because it suggests “a slow initial uptake rate is therefore not sufficient grounds for abandoning an initiative”.

Once they reached a saturation point where all potential adopters had taken it up or refused it, the rate slowed down again.

Successful schemes that followed this model include resource management systems within the local waters of communities across the Solomon Islands and Fiji.

However, the time between initial and later adoption of protected areas from one country to the next in such scenarios was as long as 54 years, and there seemed to be “a trade-off between the speed of uptake and the final proportion of adopters”.

The other effective models had a ‘fast-slow’ pattern, like one in Samoa where quicker adoption upfront was likely to have been made possible by the government, which supplied boats and aquaculture resources to help get communities on board.

Others include international environmental treaties like natural World Heritage areas and the Man and the Biosphere Reserves, or wildlife management areas powered by NGOs and/or governments. These initiatives are more strongly driven and regulated and don’t rely on interactions among adopters to scale up.

Conservation initiatives such as unesco world heritage sites protect threatened species
An Indian rhinoceros in its natural habitat at UNESCO World Heritage Site Kaziranga National Park. Credit: Abhishek Singh / Getty

Making conservation initiatives of the future more effective

Overall, however, more than half of the schemes were taken up by less than a third of potential adopters. Ideally, they would have both fast uptake and large-scale adoption, the authors write.

“In our study we did not find any initiatives that were taken up relatively quickly and by a large proportion of the potential pool of adopters,” says Mills. “We are seeking to understand more about how local context facilitates or hinders spread, to help initiatives that benefit both nature and people reach scale.”

They also found many initiatives that were never implemented effectively or were abandoned.

“Given the long time scales required for ecological recovery,” they write, “it is important to consider the dynamics of ongoing action, as well as adoption.”

“The persistence of biodiversity and ecosystem services depends on the adoption of effective conservation initiatives at a pace and scale that match or exceed environmental threats.”

Although further research is needed, their findings could help inform these efforts.

“We hope our insights into biodiversity conservation initiatives spread will allow practitioners to design them so that they reach scale,” Mills says, “which is critical for enabling them to make a tangible, lasting impact.”

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