'Conservation Evidence' journal showcases work on behaviour change and biodiversity

20 August 2013 | News story

Topics as varied as ecosystem services, tiger poaching and waste management are featured in stories about behaviour change for biodiversity conservation. This Special Issue includes examples from three continents.

by CEC member Diogo Verissimo 

Human behaviour is the key driver of all major threats to biodiversity. Habitat loss, climate change, invasive species and overharvesting are, in general, consequences of the lifestyle of billions of humans. In order to move from documenting losses and identifying causes for decline to tackling the underlying drivers and implementing solutions, we need to recognize that conservation is not only about animals and plants but equally about people and their behaviour.

Despite the growing emphasis that has been placed in areas such as environmental education or community-based conservation in recent decades, there is as yet little literature on the subject of influencing human behaviour and biodiversity conservation. One factor that has undoubtedly contributed to this trend is the lack of incentives given to conservation practitioners working on education or community-based conservation to publish their research. This has left a large proportion of conservation work either unreported or buried in inaccessible, grey literature, a concern that is common to many research fields.

Another specific issue, which is perhaps more critical, is that despite biodiversity conservation being overwhelmingly about humans and their behaviour, the training of conservation professionals is still largely focused on biological sciences. Consequently, conservation professionals are often ill equipped to understand and influence human behaviour and, therefore, less willing to address it as a research subject. This lack of preparation explains, for example, the common use of changes in awareness, knowledge or attitudes as indicators of behaviour change. Such reasoning assumes that because changes in all of these indicators commonly precede behaviour change, there is a direct link between them and behaviour.
Unfortunately, this assumption is generally wrong as there are often social, economic or psychological barriers, amongst others, to behaviour change that do not allow changes in behaviour to occur. The evaluation of conservation interventions should therefore focus on behaviour as it is the only indicator that translates into real world impact.

These oversights are especially worrying at a time when conservation needs to move beyond anecdote, personal experience and conventional wisdom, and towards a systematic appraisal of evidence collected by all those tackling a given issue. This special issue of Conservation Evidence showcases work on behaviour change and biodiversity conservation conducted by practitioners worldwide. It demonstrates the use of new techniques to influence human behaviour and new ways of measuring their effectiveness. We present six case studies, across six countries in three continents, to demonstrate that focusing on and achieving behaviour change is not only possible but relevant to a range of conservation issues.

Influencing human behaviour is one of the hardest challenges faced by conservationists today. Tackling it will require not only the willingness to learn from other research fields but also a push towards evidence-based practice and the emergence of a culture of strong commitment to evaluation and therefore, the embracing of failure. This is no small test. However, realising that without the ability to influence human behaviour, a conservationists’ role will be limited to that of describing biodiversity loss, should hopefully drive us to embrace human behaviour as a fundamental pillar of biodiversity conservation.
For more information:  Diogo Veríssimo