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Community-Based Conservation

By Alina Tugend
min read

When conservation comes to mind, people are often viewed as the problem.

But that has to change, said Dr. James, director of conservation at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, Calif.

“Conservation has been very focused on addressing breeding issues and protecting habitats,” he said. And while that’s important, “If that’s your sole focus, you’re not necessarily addressing the causes of why species are declining—they’re not declining because they forgot how to breathe or what food to eat. It’s because of people’s impact on the natural world.”

There is, however, a growing focus of community-based conservation.

“If you’re developing a conservation program and look around the room and a social scientist isn’t present, then your conservation program isn’t fully resourced,” said David Bader, director of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.

The simple act of understanding and working with a community can lead to success, said Danoff-Burg. This was especially true of efforts to improve diversity in dying coral reefs in the Dominican Republic.

“We had plans to stop damage to the reefs due to overfishing, then we discovered the problem was untreated human waste going into the water, which enriches nitrogen, creates more algae, and suffocates coral,” he said. “We quickly changed our focus to latrine construction.”

Danoff-Burg and Dr. Kathayoon Khalil, conservation impact manager at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore, have been conducting workshops, both in person and online, to provide training in structured and scientifically rigorous methods to measure how conservation programs are affecting behavior, attitudes, and knowledge in local communities (November 2019, Connect, Building Community Conservation Success).

A dog looks into the camera with goats behind.

Concerns about cheetahs in Botswana provide an example of community-based conservation. When a cheetah kills a rancher’s livestock, the rancher tends to retaliate by killing the nearest cheetahs around. The solution? Train dogs and raise them with the livestock. Those dogs then become the herds’ protectors. Danoff-Burg said livestock loss plummeted to almost zero among ranchers who participated in the program after the dog program was introduced.

The problem? Having dogs on a ranch can be an alien concept for many Botswana ranchers.

“It’s like us bringing a raccoon in the house,” said Danoff-Burg. So Danoff-Burg has been helping train workers in a local Botswana organization, Cheetah Conservation, to conduct surveys in order to allay ranchers’ concerns.

“I have the theories and they have the specific content—they know who to work with and the most culturally appropriate way to do the survey,” he added.  “We’re equal collaborators.”

So far, 274 people in 29 countries have been trained at the workshops.

“Most of the public, including those who are conservationists, don’t adequately acknowledge or may not even be are aware of the crucial role human activity plays in determining the success or failure of conservation projects,” said Danoff-Burg.

Take the California condor, considered a success story in bringing back a species from the edge of extinction.

“We got a group of stakeholders together at our Zoo—keepers, curators, some education staff and got them to sit in a room and think about what success looks like for the condor in the short term, the medium term, and long term,” said Khalil.

This included what the Oregon Zoo wanted people to know and do about the condor, as well as how many chicks should be hatching, and what the condors will be doing out in the wild.

The plan will go through several iterations and then be presented to the Zoo as a whole, she said. The goal is to put in place such plans for all the Zoo’s conservation programs, which take place in the Pacific Northwest, the Arctic, east Africa, and Borneo.

Although condor conservation has been in place for years, “this is where the human dimension comes in,” Khalil said. “A lot of the behaviors still affect condors, such as using lead shot. Condors eat the lead-infested carrion left behind and die.”

One part of the plan is to recruit well-respected people in the community to explain the benefits of copper bullets and the impact of lead.

“It’s been done, but needs to be ongoing,” she added. “These things take time.”

One of the many advantages of community-based conservation, Bader said, is it helps address species’ needs before they become emergencies.

Boats pulled up on a grassy shore.

“For many decades gill nets have been used to harvest shrimp out of the Upper Gulf of California, and now we’re going to tell people to stop gill net fishing? If we can have broader ways to support people, we would see broader conservation gains.”

Bader has worked for five years on saving the vaquita, a small porpoise that is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet and is found in a very small area in the northwestern part of the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of California.

Vaquitas have been virtually wiped out as collateral damage from gill net fishing. While a gill net ban in the Gulf of California aimed to save the porpoises, it also led to considerable economic and social upheaval for the people of the Upper Gulf.

“The challenge is when people’s source of income is gill net fishing, but we don’t provide a solution,” said Bader. “There were community-based approaches that were attempted for the vaquita that were unsuccessful and so it was abandoned in favor of a full gill net ban and top-down regulations. People were doing their good-faith best efforts to do right by the vaquita, but instead of doubling down on the community-based approach, we moved on singularly to a different approach, and we needed both.”

Terry O’Connor, principal consultant at Terry O’Connor Consulting, who has worked with many zoos and aquariums, said too often those on opposite sides of an issue hunker down and solidify their positions rather than work together.

Take the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, she said. “Loggers who are cutting down old-growth forests are the villains—it was an us vs. them idea. We’re learning—too slowly perhaps—that it can’t be us vs. them to have a longer-term solution.”

Photo Credits
Middle: © Dr. James Danoff-Burg, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Bottom: © Aquarium of the Pacific

Alina Tugend is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y. 

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