Conservation optimism: applied ecologists lead the way

Linking to their upcoming summit in Oxford, UK, Conservation Optimism’s E.J. Milner-Gulland brings together a selection of recent research papers that celebrate conservation success and look for solutions.

Conservation_Optimism_logo_These are both difficult and hopeful times for applied ecologists. On the one hand, the scale and severity of the strain that our ecological systems are under is becoming more and more apparent; a look through the contents of any journal in our field illustrates this, as do the compendious expert reports being compiled for the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services and others. On the other hand, the general public, politicians and businesses are increasingly aware of the need and urgency to act, and are even starting to turn awareness into concrete responses. This is hopefully going to culminate in strong commitments at the 2020 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, at which the hope is that a New Deal for People and Nature will be ratified, bringing together the Sustainable Development Goals, biodiversity and climate change targets under one comprehensive roadmap for action.

In 2016, following the inspirational example of #OceanOptimism and Andrew Balmford’s 2012 book Wild Hope, I and a group of volunteers (mostly students) decided to put on a Conservation Optimism Summit. This happened on Earth Day 2017, coinciding with #EarthOptimism summits around the globe. Bowled over by the thirst for optimism shown by our delegates, we kept going, making #ConservationOptimism a global movement and network, which in September 2019 held its second summit. It may appear that optimism is a naive response to ecological crisis, but we feel that, on the contrary, it is required if we are to succeed in turning our situation around.

Conservation optimism is about focusing on solutions, rather than only purveying a doom and gloom message about biodiversity loss without a way forward. It’s about not shying away from failures, but picking ourselves up, learning, and doing things better next time. It is also about sharing successes and thinking about how to replicate them, and hopefully scale them up, so that we move from small pockets of success to system-wide transformation. It’s therefore a perfect fit for the remit of Journal of Applied Ecology, which focuses on science that has a clear potential for impact. In fact, I would expect every paper published in this journal to reflect a ‘can-do’ attitude, even if the message is that things are not currently working as they should.

I would expect every paper published in this journal to reflect a ‘can-do’ attitude, even if the message is that things are not currently working as they should.

Conservation optimism is also about building support networks for people working in conservation around the world; connecting individuals and organisations to share triumphs, learn from and mentor each other, and console each other when things don’t go so well. And finally, it’s about intersectoral and cross-generational collaboration; bringing in ideas from all other sectors, embracing creative arts in particular, providing hope and a way forward for young people, and helping businesses and governments to see that in backing conservation they are backing a winner. Practitioners’ Perspectives are an excellent example of how Journal of Applied Ecology brings academics and practitioners together as both authors and readers, to reflect upon how management can become more effective. The journal’s blogs, videos and other media open up dialogue between researchers and wider audiences.

I was therefore really excited to be asked to bring together a Virtual Issue of papers from the journal to showcase the topic of conservation optimism. Given the challenge of picking from so many excellent papers, I confined myself to papers published since mid-2018. The eighteen papers I have selected illustrate a few features of the Conservation Optimism community and together provide an inspiring picture of the state of applied ecology now and its prospects for the future.

Delegates at ICCB share why they are conservation optimists

First, there are many papers in the journal that document ‘what works’ using rigorous evaluations of policies and practices. Many relate to improving biodiversity in production landscapes, for example Katayama et al.’s analysis of the effects of different rice paddy techniques in promoting biodiversity, Froidevaux et al.’s analysis of the benefits of targeted agrienvironment schemes for bats, Gaigher et al.’s study of how to combine butterfly conservation and timber production in a fire-prone landscape, and Karp et al.’s discovery that remnant forests in agricultural landscapes can contain bird communities indistinguishable from protected areas. Bond et al. use a rigorous evaluation design to show how a financial incentive scheme helped improve biodiversity in a farming landscape. A particularly innovative study by Frei et al. looked for ‘bright spots’ of high biodiversity and multifunctionality in Canadian agricultural landscapes. Finally, I picked Badia-Boher, Sanz-Aguilar et al.’s demonstration of the effectiveness of an intervention for vulture conservation, which integrated a range of approaches including education and practical actions. This is an inspiring story, typical of the Conservation Optimism approach.

Another set of papers illustrates the power and potential of cross-sectoral engagement. One of the more obvious fits to the remit of Conservation Optimism is citizen science. Callaghan et al. propose an index for urban greenspace integrity that can enable citizen scientists where most people actually live to participate in ecological assessments of their own spaces. Citizen science is still more predominant in Europe than other parts of the world; Pocock et al. provide an inspiring vision for how it can be used globally (with a case study in East Africa) to support decision-making and empower citizens. Two of the excellent Practitioners’ Perspectives series illustrate how nature and people can interact more positively: Coogan et al. discuss how to ensure that grizzly bears don’t just coexist with people in a modern mixed landscape, but thrive. Similarly, Mitchell & Bilkovic show how dynamic living shorelines can be designed to provide benefits for people and wildlife; noting also that collaboration between ecologists and engineers is essential.

My final group of papers has a more future-looking perspective. Given it’s my home country, I picked two that provide a positive, ecologically-informed, vision for the UK’s future landscapes, both of which are thinking beyond our current political uncertainties to the opportunities that may lie ahead. Isaac et al. shows that the science to underpin our government’s bold vision for resilient ecological networks is ready to be deployed, while Sandom et al. uses a stakeholder workshop to explore opportunities to rewild England’s uplands. Further afield, Cerullo & Edwards show how resilience can be restored in selectively logged tropical forests, while Clements et al. highlight the huge conservation opportunities available from better use of privately protected areas. A more species-focused opportunity is given by Ross et al., who show that captive-bred bilbies can be successfully trained to be wary of introduced predators before release. Regardless of all this conservation innovation, if we don’t fix our food systems we are not going to succeed in reversing ecological destruction. Luckily, White et al. give us hope for a way forward for dairy farming via sustainable intensification, while Berthet et al. explore the role of ecologists in the participatory design of innovative agroecosystems. Spoiler alert – they’re key to success. But so are all the other stakeholders.

I hope you agree that these papers are a great advertisement for conservation optimism – finding ways for all of society to work together to conserve nature, mitigate climate change and enhance human wellbeing, buoy ourselves up in the bad times, and never give up. Long may Journal of Applied Ecology’s authors continue to provide the critical evidence and analysis needed to support this effort.

All the papers in the Conservation optimism Virtual Issue are free to read for a limited time. Access them here in Journal of Applied Ecology.


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