Impact evaluations rare in conservation planning

Conservation scientists never have enough time or money, so it’s important to ask whether we are planning for biodiversity conservation effectively and efficiently. Based on our newly published findings, the frustratingly simple answer to this complex question is: we still don’t know, and much more work is needed.

In our review of over 10,000 articles relating to systematic conservation planning we identified only three high quality evaluations of implemented plans. This doesn’t mean that systematic conservation planning can’t be effective, but instead demonstrates how little we know about how, when and why it may or may not be effective.

By ‘us’ I’m referring to my amazing co-authors: Sarah, Steve, Brooke and Glenn from the University of Queensland, Jessica from Colorado State University, Bob from James Cook University, Madeleine, founder of Bright Impact, and Rich, my supervisor at Oxford.

We followed guidelines honed by the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence to undertake this systematic mapping exercise. Extremely rigorous and exacting, this approach is drawn from the medical sciences to help identify evidence on the effectiveness of medical (or in our case, conservation) interventions.

We scoured 29 sources, including academic journals, non-academic databases and the brains of conservation planning experts, then carefully reviewed each one of 10,000 articles and documented reasons why we felt each was relevant or irrelevant.

Figure 3

Flow diagram outlining outcomes of article searching and screening stages. SCP: systematic conservation planning.

Interestingly, 43 studies discussed the consequences of implemented systematic conservation plans. The problem was, they lacked controls or counterfactual study designs, so the authors’ claims of effectiveness (e.g. that a depleted elk population started to recover due to the planning process) could not be independently verified.

There’s no doubt, evaluating conservation interventions is hard. However, the three studies we located demonstrate that it is not impossible. To get there, planners and academics need incentives to publish the outcomes of systematic conservation planning exercises, ideally using rigorous impact evaluation study designs.

Greater reporting of outcomes will help improve transparency and accountability for funding bodies, and promote the design of plans to achieve the goal we all want most – healthy species and ecosystems.

Publication details

This work represents the largest section of my PhD research, and is the second to last section of my thesis to be published so it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to share our findings!

McIntosh EJ, Chapman S, Kearney SG, Williams B, Althor G, Thorn JPR, Pressey RL, McKinnon MC, Grenyer R. 2018. Absence of evidence for the conservation outcomes of systematic conservation planning around the globe: A systematic map. Environmental Evidence, 7:22. [Open access]

Hungry for more?!

An impressive database of marine spatial prioritisations has been developed by Jorge Álvarez-Romero and colleagues at James Cook University and is featured in their new publication.

Mongabay’s series on conservation effectiveness includes fascinating explorations of  what works, and what simply doesn’t.


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