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The great divide

The gap between theory and practice remains surprisingly wide in conservation biology.

Men and women do not decide to become conservation biologists because they yearn for riches and fame, for swimming pools or caviar. They decide to become conservation biologists because they want to stop species from becoming extinct.

So it can sometimes come as a surprise for outsiders to learn how far removed the conservation biologist often is from actual efforts to save species. Most of the time, conservation biologists describe problems, float solutions, prioritize areas and actions, and run computer models of natural ecosystems. They are cartographers of crises, producing demoralizing maps of threat and extinction. They are adept at coming up with ever-better methods of doing more with less — at least in theory (see page 152).

It generally falls to a separate and amorphous group, known as 'practitioners', to buy land, put up fences, set fires, put out fires, lobby politicians, negotiate with farmers, spray invasive weeds, poison rats and guard against poachers. These people are generally not conservation biologists: they are civil servants, environmental consultants, park managers or environmental lobbyists.

The distance between these two groups creates a sometimes-yawning 'implementation gap' between theory and practice. Conservation biologists write and publish papers, which the practitioners seldom read. The practitioners, in turn, rarely document their actions or collate their data in forms useful to conservation biologists. Typically, practitioners make decisions based on personal experience and intuition. Their knowledge stays untapped by others — and can be impervious to fresh scientific findings.

The existence of this gap has been acknowledged, and numerous efforts are already directed at bridging it. Some publications try to bring scientific news to practitioners. William Sutherland, a conservation biologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, runs a site called ConservationEvidence.com where practitioners are encouraged to deposit reports on the outcomes of their interventions — successful or otherwise. Data from these reports can then be fed into systematic reviews of the kind being done by Andrew Pullin at Bangor University in Wales, whose Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation attempts to answer questions such as 'are Japanese knotweed control and eradication interventions effective?'.

There have been many calls for more mid-career training of practitioners. Conservation biologists could run workshops, and squeeze in some much-needed interaction with their peers on the application side of the discipline. The need for this may sound obvious — but in a field so cash-strapped that many conservation projects can't even afford to assess their own effectiveness afterwards, it sometimes seems like a luxury.

What is needed is a concerted effort by both academic scientists and practitioners to get out of their respective ruts.

Local and national governments with a stake in conservation should be encouraged to support such training as a cost-effective means of raising the efficiency of the conservation projects on their turf — an objective that constituents at both ends of the political spectrum are liable to support.

But the gap can also be bridged if conservation biologists remember to look at all of their professional activities in light of their interest — be it practical, moral, aesthetic or even humanitarian — in saving species from extinction. In essence, the more time that they can spend working with local practitioners on real conservation issues the better.

What is needed is a concerted effort by both academic scientists and practitioners to get out of their respective ruts, open up paths of communication, share information and seek ever more efficient means to a common end.

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The great divide. Nature 450, 135–136 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/450135b

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