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Conservation success: why is it so hard to achieve? (Part 1)

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Most of these extinctions are projected to take place within the next few decades, which is a significant acceleration relative to the evolutionary timeline, where speciation and extinction took places over millions of years. Not only are we losing species, but along with them we are also bidding farewell to the integrity of entire eco systems. Unfortunately, this is not shocking news. Conservationists have been trying to find solutions for the biodiversity crisis for decades, with very little success.

This article series asks a few critical questions that are vital to understand the reasons for limited conservation success.  It also attempts to propose  a few good case practices that may lead the way for better conservation planning in the future. It is important to note however, that these questions have been asked and answered before – by many people from all parts of the world.  Therefore, is asking them again of any real value? We think so. We especially believe that those engaged in conservation should ask these questions within their organizations, from policy makers they work with, and most importantly from themselves. 

In part 1 of this series we tackle three core questions that explore the relationship between biodiversity and people, the multidisciplinary nature of conservation and the importance of talking about conservation failures. 

Does the biodiversity crisis have real implications on human well-being?

Even though awareness around the biodiversity crisis has developed over the years, the fact that nature’s health is synonymous with the health of the human race is far from being accepted. Not enough people acknowledge that extinction of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem health is leading to the erosion of the very foundations of humanity including our economies, livelihoods, food security and health. This is one of the key reasons, if not the most important one, that leads to failed conservation efforts. The lack of awareness of the relationship between people and nature isn’t due to the lack of scientific evidence. A number of authors have demonstrated how compromised ecosystems have led to an increased intensity of natural disasters, emergence of zoonotic disasters and disturbance of global weather patterns (reviewed by Sodhi et al., 2006).

Therefore, the first step to successful conservation is to truly and completely acknowledge this fact – natural and human ecosystems are intricately intertwined and inter-dependant. Trying to develop and safeguard one without the other is virtually impossible. This is evident across the globe where both the direct and indirect interactions between people and nature are not just leading to environmental destruction but also creating opportunities for environmental conservation (Garcia et al. 2010 ; Chazdon et al., 2009) Therefore, in order to limit the negative outcomes of this interaction and maximize positive developments, it is vital to appreciate the multidisciplinary nature of conservation.

Why does conservation need to take a multidisciplinary approach?

No more is conservation a discipline only rooted in the natural sciences where investigations into species and ecosystems is sufficient to make fruitful decisions. Studying and understanding human societies and their behaviour patterns should be done as thoroughly as studying the natural ecosystem. Why are people still clearing valuable forest patches and poaching threatened species? Is it because of extreme poverty, absence of clear regulations, political agendas or lack of education or a combination of factors? Asking these questions, loud and clear from as many stakeholders as possible is the only way to truly understand the underlying drivers.

Multidisciplinary approaches to conservation has been seen in forest management (Machar, 2016), planning of marine protected areas (Ruiz-Frau, 2015) etc. in most parts of the world.
However, to which extent are these projects truly multidisciplinary. Even though the planning phase of projects take a multidisciplinary approach, are they really implemented while accounting for the needs of all the stakeholders involved. The lack of evidence on this gives way to the question. Is the multidisciplinary conservation actually practiced in the world or is it still a theoretical concept? Are we merely using it as a façade for conservation projects that are still driven by singular agendas?

Do we speak enough about conservation outcomes – especially failures?

Another key driver of failed conservation efforts is the lack of dialogue regarding failure. A study by Catalano et al. (2019) discovered that project failure reports are alarmingly rare in the peer-reviewed conservation literature. Even the ones that exists most often analyse projects that are not their own. It is a justifiable human instinct to avoid discussing failure. However, in a crisis discipline such as conservation, where failure can lead to widespread destruction, analysing failed projects is so vital. The study further highlights how systems and mindsets that value failure contribute substantially to institutional knowledge on conservation. Therefore, talking about failure should be considered as vital in conservation. It may well be one of the most effective ways to share knowledge and provide better direction for future conservation efforts.

It is important to ask ourselves why we are so reluctant to talk about failure? Is it because talking about conservation failure is still not normalized in the world? Or is it because somewhere along the way, we forgot why we engage in conservation and shifted our focus towards generating results that are pleasing to our funders, employers or governments?

References

Catalano, A. S., Lyons-White, J., Mills, M. M., & Knight, A. T. (2019). Learning from published project failures in conservation. Biological Conservation, 238(April), 108223. 

Chazdon, R. L., Harvey, C. A., Komar, O., Griffith, D. M., Ferguson, B. G., Martínez-Ramos, M., Morales, H., Nigh, R., Soto-Pinto, L., Van Breugel, M., & Philpott, S. M. (2009). Beyond reserves: A research agenda for conserving biodiversity in human-modified tropical landscapes. Biotropica, 41(2), 142–153. 

Garcia, C., Bhagwat, S., Ghazoul, J., Nath, C., Nanayak, K., Kushalappa, C., Raguramulu, Y., Nasi, R. and Vaast, P. (2010). Biodiversity Conservation in Agricultural Landscapes: Challenges and Opportunities of Coffee Agroforests in the Western Ghats, India. Conservation Biology, 24(2), pp.479-488.

Machar, I, Simon, J., Rejsek, K., Pechanec, V., Brus, J., Kilianova, H. (2016). Assessment of Forest Management in Protected Areas Based on Multidisciplinary Research. Forests , 7, 285.

Ruiz-Frau, A., Possingham, H. P., Edwards-Jones, G., Klein, C. J., Segan, D., & Kaiser, M. J. (2015). A multidisciplinary approach in the design of marine protected areas: Integration of science and stakeholder based methods. Ocean & Coastal Management, 103, 86–93. 

 Sodhi, N., Brooks, T., Koh, L., Acciaioli, G., Erb, M., Tan, A., . . . Lee, R. (2006). Biodiversity and Human Livelihood Crises in the Malay Archipelago. Conservation Biology, 20(6), 1811-1813.

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Is fishing critical for otter survival in human-modified landscape?

The Elusive Otter

“Otter is a animal you never knew you needed to know about” – an awareness message created by Martin Fowlie as we brainstormed on how to engage people in getting to know about otters.

Otter, a semi-aquatic mammal known by few and studied by handful. There are thirteen otter species spread across the globe. The one I am talking about in this article is called Smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata). This species is found only in Asia and is the most widespread species in India.

 

Natural Resources under Continuous Stress

In India, human population is fast growing. More than forty people would have been born in the time you take to read this article. Human necessities increase with population growth thereby putting more stress on natural resources. Attempts are made to areas human needs and wants (in some cases) through well planned and poorly planned construction projects which put natural resources under continuous stress.

Outside the areas protected for wildlife and close to human settlements we see a rise in construction activities. These small and large scale construction activities aim to modify the landscape to address human welfare. While most projects complete as expected, there are some left incomplete and unattended due to financial or legal constraints. Hardly any construction or habitat modification project pay equal attention to the needs of the wildlife residing in the area of modification. Very rarely are innovative strategies thought of to benefit both humans and wildlife in a development project.

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Khazan Lands and the Fishing Culture

Goa, the coastal state of India is a well-known tourist destination. This land of sun, sand and coconut trees is also home to a wide diversity of flora and fauna. Smooth-coated otter and the Asian Small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus) are the two species of otters found in Goa. Both species differ in the choice of habitat they prefer. While Asian Small-clawed otter being predominantly a crustacean feeder prefers the rocky and shallow forest streams of Western Ghats, majority of the Smooth-coated otter population in Goa is found in the mangroves predating mainly on fish. The estuarine region of this state boasts of a rich mangrove ecosystem.

This small state of India has a strong fishing culture and is admired for its seafood. Ruled by Portuguese at one time, Goa has unique Khazan lands. Khazans is creatively designed landscape during the Portuguese time to enable fishing and farming in tandem. As years go by the fishing activities have stayed alive while farming is becoming a dying tradition. The fishing pools are leased out annually.

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Large-scale activities like sand and iron-ore mining, coal transport, riverbank constructions etc. negatively impact the natural abundance of fish in the waterbodies. Fish being the main prey of the smooth-coated otter; the survival challenge only increases as time goes by.

 

A Grass-root Level Perspective 

I have been studying the smooth-coated otter in human modified landscape for over six years. Across the years I have made several notes on its behavior, adaptation, family dynamics, interaction with humans, interaction with stray dogs, interaction with other wild animals, habitat selection and habitat use.

A fishermen whose livelihood is also dependent on fish abundance works extremely hard to maintain the availability of fish stock in leased out or privately owned fishing pools. The government cares for their needs more often than not. With natural resources being shared between humans and animals; otters are often observed feeding from the leased out fishing pools and at times feeding from the fishing nets.

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As the rivers get more utilized for commercial activities; getting more polluted with plastics, sewage and other waste; with riverbank constructions and modifications on the rise; it makes me wonder if the future of otter survival is directly proportional to the traditional fishing practices being followed in the area?

“Is fishermen presence critical for otter survival in human-modified landscape?”

Please do leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.