By John Fa
Recently I was made aware of the chasm that still exists between those of us who
undertake more academic research in conservation and those at coalface. Different species? The comments that sort of piqued me, had to do with the ever-present issue of why devote funds to modeling exercises such as the one we recently published on hunting sustainability of wild mammals in central Africa http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0112367 instead of putting that money to work directly for conservation. I, for one, am a great enthusiast of the many that are doing everything possible (often in difficult circumstances) to save species from extinction – indeed, champions that should be adequately supported and cheered every way.
However, I do have some concerns about the way matters can become polarized when we talk about applied research and conservation actions. In my experience, there is always a feeling amongst those who live by ‘rolling up their sleeves’ (an expression used frequently in Durrell, for whom I worked for many years) that most research is simply a luxury that we cannot afford it, because carrying out the work on the ground is what is important. This mantra, obviously repeated by practitioners around the world, is one, which, in my opinion, could stop us from understanding the big picture or from giving any space to valuable more theoretical types of research.
I fully agree that immediate responses to the ‘clear and present’ danger of defaunation of tropical forests must be fully supported and well funded, but dismissing more theoretical exercises (such as spatial modeling) as a tool to better understand the complex situation of wildlife is perhaps a tad precipitate. The work we have published, ‘macro-scale exercises’ if you will, do allow to better understand geographical areas of concern and species to look out for.
My point here is that those working in the field are crucial but researchers and practitioners have to meet halfway, and complaints about projects that focus on more ‘esoteric’ research may commit the avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad – throwing the baby with the bathwater. There is, indeed, as many practitioners and even theoreticians imply, the need for a better scrutiny of how research funds are deployed, but frankly, we could do the same exercise when scrutinizing how funds are spent in conservation work by BINGOs or ‘S(small)INGOs’ among others. My experience is that effectiveness, and good use of funds is often not evaluated properly, because the propaganda machinery that many institutions/organisations have (which always claim successes) takes over. Internal and external audits are missing in most cases.
My last pennies worth is that we need to have a better sense of what research is fundamental and useful. There have been a number of feeble attempts by our community to develop priorities for work to be carried out, but we still don’t have any convincing blueprint for a way forward. Perhaps we are just too competitive and find it difficult to sit down and share ideas on what to do next, for the better of science and livelihoods. Or maybe, we just tend to look at things in a half-empty vessel manner – I believe there is enough for everyone to do what they do best, but we need to have a better sense of what really needs to be known and done on the ground.