Category: Blog


Published: September 17, 2013

How much science is needed for conservation?

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


Via Facebook, a colleague shared a link to an essay in Animal Behavior by Tim Caro and Paul Sherman entitled: Eighteen reasons animal behavioralists avoid involvement in conservation (Animal Behavior (2012) 85:305-312). They exhort behavioral scientists to think more about the conservation value of their research. I agree with this idea, but that does not mean that I think this is universally appreciated. At one point, they write: “And all the large NGOs, which have a disproportionate say in conservation decision-making, have a group of biologists in charge of strategic planning units. Yes, communication barriers remain, but they are eroding in the most influential conservation decision-making arenas.” This quote struck me because I had just heard someone from one of those large NGOs speaking at the museum.

Eric Dinerstein, Vice President of Conservation Science from the World Wildlife Fund came through the museum promoting his new book Kingdom of Rarities (Island Press). The on-line reviews look good. His talk focused on tigers and elephants and some really creative ways in which technology might be engaged to help conserve them. In his talk, he also presented a quote that has stuck with me. I found an expanded version of the quote on a blog post about conservation of Bengal Tigers: “One of the easiest and potentially most efficient ways of helping these Tigers is to educate the public in order to raise awareness and gain support. Richard Cowling said, ‘Conservation is 10% science and 90% negotiation.’ I believe this applies to the current situation with Bengal Tigers.”

The additional wording from the blog post expands on what struck me about the short quote Dinerstein used which was: “Conservation is 10% science and 90% negotiation.”  To me, this could only come from someone who is undervaluing science to a pretty substantial degree. At least in the context it was used when I heard it (it is worth noting that the originator, Richard Cowling, is a university-based botanist), I can appreciate the intended sentiment that you have to deal with people (at many levels) when you are trying to conserve charismatic large mammals like Bengal Tigers; however, what I heard more loudly was: when you get immersed in conservation, particularly the conservation of big charismatic animals like Bengal Tigers, you lose sight of value and necessity of science. First, I don’t think you would ever need as big a percentage for negotiation with respect to most other rare animals. I also don’t think you would necessarily need that big a percentage for negotiation with respect to saving habitats, and yet I do think negotiation is critical. I’m concerned that anyone would think that science would ever be only 10% of such an effort if that effort were to succeed (meaning conservation in the long term would be achieved). Of course, these percentages and what they actually refer to is somewhat vague. Is this 10% of an individual’s time devoted to science, or is the 10%, all human scientific effort required to conserve something? Maybe these percentages are the ideal ones, and I’m just looking at it the wrong way. Does 10% of the funding for most big conservation project budgets go to science? I actually do not know; maybe someone else does. 

More to the point, I find the dichotomy overly simplistic and that brings me to the additional text I pulled from the blog post: “One of the easiest and potentially most efficient ways of helping these Tigers is to educate the public in order to raise awareness and gain support.” Hmmm, where does education come out between science and negotiation? Is that an activity that falls under “negotiation”? I guess it could (science education was not mentioned at all in Dinerstein’s presentation), but this is where I think science is being undervalued for what it truly is:  Education is about transmitting knowledge; knowledge about the natural world is based on research. In this case, research about the natural world and how it functions with tigers in it, knowledge about how Bengal Tigers behave, how they move, why they move, how they feed, when they feed, and where they feed, and this takes lots of research effort to gather these data (Dinerstein himself talked of sitting for hundreds of hours on tree platforms waiting for tigers to show up), and once the data are gathered they have to be analyzed. Thousands of hours may be needed and the really frustrating, but cool, thing, is that even after you have all those data, behaviors can change, especially in animals and plants living in close proximity to humans, and then you have to do more research to understand why that is happening, so even though I think negotiation is absolutely critical; it cannot be 90% of this equation. 

And I haven’t really added in education yet. I think one of the most important things necessary to ensure the log-term survival of Bengal Tigers, is to train local scientists from the region where they occur to study them and to communicate with their neighbors about the value of conserving the tigers through what they learn. Education to me is one of the key roles of science (and always has been). I admit there is education that is critical on the negotiation side of the ledger as well, but I would argue for something more like 90% Science (and Education) and 10% negotiation. I could be wrong. I see two possibilities here, the first is that the original quote is accurate which means that negotiations are really, really, really overwhelmingly more important than science (and education). or I could be right, and the estimate of the percentages favored by Dinerstein is off, way off. 

Not being a behavioral scientist, I'm not sure how folks are reacting to Caro and Sherman's essay, but I think there is a great deal of conservation value to studies of animal behavior (and the evolution of behavior). I also think we need individuals who spend 10% of their time on science and 90% on negotiation for conservation, but I can’t convince myself that the overall conservation effort can be successful if these percentages are applied across the board. I don’t think it really worked this way in the past and I don’t think it works this way now, but even more importantly I think we need to put much more resources into science and science education to ensure successful outcomes for rare species. Ten percent science would be far too little to know what was best to do and also educate people about it so that negotiation could lead to the kinds of outcomes both conservationists and scientists want to see.


Two rare African birds that both need additional study. 1) The White-necked Rockfowl (Picathartes gymnocephalus) was rediscovered in Ghana by a team that included Field Museum ornithologists.  This lead to a survey as part of the doctoral dissertation of Ghanaian biologist Augustus Asamoah, who has been a participant in Fielld Museum training programs and spent time in the museum writing his dissertation.  There are stable populations in Ghana that are now providing a new source of ecotourism for the country. 2) The Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea), a local and enigmatic specialist of open grasslands in central Africa.  The Blue Swallow is a species that is considered to be vulnerable because of alteration of its breeding habitats and is wintering habitats which are in different parts of Africa.  Both photos by J. Weckstein.