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?


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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