Transforming Conservation: A Practical Guide to Evidence and Decision Making

This blog post was written by Bill Sutherland (Miriam Rothschild Professor in Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and member of BioRISC, the Biosecurity Research Initiative and St Catherine’s College) and Nigel Taylor (Research Associate in the Conservation Science Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge)

The new book Transforming Conservation can be downloaded for free from:

In 2002, the low-budget Oakland Athletics baseball team embarked on a 20-game winning streak [1]. In a unit of the Spanish University Hospital Donostia, the risk of death declined by 19% and the length of stay decreased by 29% between 2000 and 2011 [2]. Since the 1970s, the total number of annual fatalities from aircraft flight has tumbled by 5–10 times, despite increases in the number of passengers being carried [3].

One thing underpins all of these significant improvements: evidence-based decision-making.

The Oakland Athletics started to use statistical analyses rather than the opinions of scouts when selecting team members. The Spanish hospital unit became explicitly evidence-based in 2003. Aircraft disasters are followed by thorough review, reflection and, where necessary, changes in practice.

Although there are many excellent examples of evidence-based decision making in conservation, we are still lacking a culture of routine evidence use. For a variety of reasons, evidence is often ignored even when it is available and when making decisions that don’t have a trivial answer. This can lead to inefficient, ineffective and even harmful conservation action. For instance, mangrove planting projects often fail [4], or even destroy valuable habitats like seagrass meadows and mudflats, because they ignore evidence about what conditions are suitable for mangrove tree species and how best to plant them [5].

Examples of evidence-based conservation: (a) An accumulation of evidence – from observations, post-mortem examinations, experiments and interviews – has supported conservation of Gyps vultures on the Indian subcontinent (especially in Nepal) through bans on veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. (b) A culture of evidence use is embedded within the Woodland Trust (a UK charitable organization). The Trust has a dedicated Conservation Evidence and Outcomes team and invest in the systems, processes and training to support this. They regularly synthesize evidence, fund and commission research, and publish evidence-based guidance. Images: Shantanu Kuveskar/Wikimedia Commons & UK Garden Photos/Flickr.

Embedding evidence use into all conservation decision making could help us to achieve so much more with limited conservation resources. For example, a study testing a series of measures to protect birds of prey showed concentrating on effective bird conservation actions could achieve the same outcomes for 22% less investment [6]. Some orangutan conservation actions such as habitat protection and patrolling are 300–400% more cost effective than others like rescue and rehabilitation [7]. In turn, demonstrating that we are using conservation resources efficiently is likely to attract further investment in conservation.

Transforming Conservation introduces ‘ziggurat plots’ as a way of visualizing evidence. Each block represents a piece of evidence, with the width reflecting its ‘weight’ (a combination of reliability and relevance; see inset).

When combined with the skills, expertise and passion of the global conservation community, we expect that Transforming Conservation will foster more effective and efficient conservation practice – and ultimately a healthier living world.

Extract from a checklist in Transforming Conservation. There are several checklists throughout the book, designed to support evidence-based conservation.

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