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15.4: Building Lasting Partnerships

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  • Productive partnerships are one of the most important components of any successful conservation undertaking. Throughout this textbook, we have seen how successful partnerships can ensure effective law enforcement, sustainable development, ecosystem protection, and threat mitigation. Yet, many conservation projects continue to fail due to a lack of collaboration between community groups, scientists, and government leaders. Other projects fail due to unproductive partnerships, such as those relying too much on foreign consultants who lack the necessary understanding of cultural intricacies and organizational objectives in recipient countries (Mcleod et al., 2015). When considering conservation’s funding deficits, it is critical to wisely use what limited funds we have by maximising each project’s prospects for success. Accomplishing this task starts with partnership composition.

    Partnerships with local people

    One of the most important groups to partner with is local people, particularly those individuals who are directly affected, positively and sometimes not so positively—hopefully only in the short term—by conservation projects (Redpath et al., 2013; Hall et al., 2014). Conservation projects are significantly more likely to achieve their long-term goals when they incorporate local histories and find ways to work with existing relationships between local people and their land (Waylen et al., 2010; Oldekop et al., 2016). When local people understand and buy into a project’s goals and purposes, they may not only become partners in conservation, but also take on leadership roles in, or become activists for, environmental causes.

    When local people buy into a project’s goals and purposes, they may not only become partners in conservation, but also take on leadership roles in, or become activists for, environmental causes.

    Environmental monitoring by volunteer citizen scientists provides one of the prominent success stories involving local partnerships (Figure 15.5). For example, using hand-held devices (e.g. smart phones) with GPS capabilities, local communities are now able to map natural resources in their forests (, wildlife distributions (Box 15.3), and poaching hotspots (Edwards and Plagányi, 2008), as well as forest loss (DeVries et al., 2016) and human-wildlife conflict (Larson et al., 2016). In Ethiopia, citizen scientists are empowered to perform tasks usually reserved for specialists, such as maintaining long-term demographic studies on birds (Şekercioğlu, 2011). Even people that lack confidence can contribute to these efforts, through platforms such as iNaturalist which have automated features to help users identify unknown organisms they may encounter.

    Box 15.3 Tracking Species in Space and Time: Citizen Science in Africa

    Phoebe Barnard1,2

    1Biodiversity Futures Programme and Climate Change BioAdaptation,

    South African National Biodiversity Institute,

    Cape Town, South Africa.

    2Current Address:

    Conservation Biology Institute,

    Corvallis, OR, &

    University of Washington, Bothell,

    Bothell, WA, USA.

    Planners and managers all know that keeping their eye on the world around them is crucial for good decision-making. But even in the richest nations, it’s not always easy to gather enough data to get a detailed sense of environmental change in multiple dimensions—or even to keep track of what’s happening on the far side of a large national park, reserve, or mountain range.

    In Africa, perhaps even more than the rest of the world, the need for biodiversity monitoring data far outstrips the capacity of professional scientists to deliver it. And yet, in Namibia, South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana, the combination of public interest in biodiversity, technology, and recreation is giving rise to highly motivated “armies” of civil society volunteers (Figure 15.C). These citizen scientists not only help create remarkably detailed, high-quality datasets, but also make aspirations for ecological study a reality.

    Figure 15.C Citizen science allows local people such as these birdwatchers from Limpopo, South Africa to make an important contribution to conservation biology. Photograph by Lisa Nupen, CC BY 4.0.

    Bird data, as in so many regions, form the crux of dynamic citizen science in Africa. There are atlas projects such as the Second Southern African Bird Atlas Project, Tanzania Bird Atlas, Kenya Bird Map, and Nigerian Bird delivering important data on bird distributions in space and time across key parts of the African continent. The best of these are linked directly with academic research and applied conservation planning, policy and management, to enable adaptive responses to global change challenges (Barnard et al., 2016). In South Africa, IUCN Red Data books, environmental impact assessments (EIAs), systematic conservation plans, and national biodiversity assessments are now based partly on bird atlas data, as are dozens of high impact journal publications. These datasets can highlight places where bird ranges are shrinking or numbers are declining, such as the secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius, VU) across Southern Africa (Figure 15.D), or expanding rapidly, such as the invasive common mynah (Acridotheres tristis, LC).

    Figure 15.D Distribution data collected by citizen scientists during the second South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) (ongoing since 2007) have shown that the secretarybird has disappeared in many areas where it was recorded during the SABAP1 survey (1987-1991). Red squares show population decline or disappearance, yellow squares show stable populations, and green square show population increase. Survey squares are approximately 25 km2. Map courtesy of SANBI and University of Cape Town, CC BY 4.0.

    Citizen science-based biodiversity monitoring works well in countries in which at least part of the population is mobile, interested, and moderately educated. Despite these being quite daunting obstacles in some areas, there are several important initiatives that enable new citizen scientists to contribute to biodiversity monitoring, even by those with very limited or no literacy. One such example is MammalMap, a major initiative that uses camera traps to track important and visible taxa across the continent.

    Many of Africa’s most dynamic and productive citizen-science projects supporting conservation biology arise from the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit. The unit was founded in order to bring together civil society volunteerism, professional science, and conservation biology. The ADU, with its projects to monitor birds, frogs, butterflies, mammals, reptiles and other groups, deserves national and global investment as a powerful hub of cost-effective biodiversity monitoring.

    Citizen science helps track biodiversity in space and time, providing important snapshots of the state of the environment during times of dizzying environmental change. It also builds love, knowledge, and custodianship of biodiversity among people who need to re-connect with nature and find meaning in their lives. These volunteers contribute their time, fuel and energy towards national, regional and global causes. This is a crucial cause for biodiversity in Africa, which needs investment in order to spread to all levels of society.

    Figure 15.5 Under the guidance of a conservation biologist, a group of citizen scientists monitor lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor, NT) and black crowned crane (Balearica pavonina, VU) at wetlands in Guinea. Photograph by Guinea Ecology, CC BY 4.0.

    There are many benefits to local involvement in biodiversity monitoring. For example, field data collected by citizen scientists—which are often as accurate as those collected by specialists (Danielsen et al., 2014; Schuttler et al. 2018)—allow biologists to obtain information from more areas more regularly and more cheaply than would be the case if specialists collected that same data. Local involvement also ensures that conservation decisions and actions are more effective and quicker to implement (Danielsen et al. 2010) and improves engagement, creating stronger advocates for conservation (Granek et al., 2008).

    Partnerships among conservation professionals

    Conservation biologists need to be more deliberate in fostering appropriate inter-organizational partnerships. Such partnerships enable new information to spread quicker and enable conservationists to learn from each other and to know whom to contact when advice is sought. Strategic partnerships also enable specialisation among organizations that they need not “do it all”. It allows sharing of scarce resources (e.g. trained volunteers, temporary staff, and citizen scientists) from one organization to another when not being utilised at a time. It also facilitates better coordination of activities, particularly at large scales, which improves project efficiency (Kark et al., 2015) organizational resilience (Maciejewski and Cumming, 2015), and conservation outcomes (Bonebrake et al., 2019). Lastly, research in Uganda showed that involving a variety of partners, especially governmental authorities, from the outset results in faster project implementation (Twinamatsiko et al., 2014).

    Professional partnerships enable new information to spread quicker and enable conservationists to learn from each other and to know whom to contact when advice is sought.

    Prospective collaborators are generally already familiar with each other. However, at times appropriate collaborators may be outside one’s immediate network; this is especially true for conservation start-ups or people who have recently entered the field. In these cases, there are several effective strategies to foster new and effective partnerships. One of the best options is to attend professional meetings (Figure 15.6) such as those presented by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)’s Africa Section ( While this can be intimidating at first, it is worth thinking ahead of time how your own interests can be integrated with that of potential collaborators. At an organizational level, one can also contact a third party, such as the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, which specialises in bringing appropriate partners together. Lastly, social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, ResearchGate) and biodiversity observation platforms (e.g. iNaturalist) serve to connect conservationists and naturalists from across the spectrum who wish to discuss their activities with other like-minded individuals in a more informal, less intimidating setting.

    Figure 15.6 Conferences provide a good opportunity to meet other conservation biologists and to establish new collaborations. Here are members of the SCB’s Africa Section after a business meeting at the 2015 International Congress for Conservation Biology, which was held in Montpellier, France. Photograph by Israel Borokini, CC BY 4.0.

    Like a marriage or friendship, professional partnerships also require constant maintenance (WWF, 2000). Project partners will invariably have different biases, objectives, and interests. They may also compete for the same funding sources, face historical legacies that complicate cooperation, or be confused about their roles in a project. It is therefore advisable for new partnerships to start small, and to take on little risk. For example, rather than initiating a project to save a high-priority species, it may be more conducive to gain experience by focussing on a less critical species or preparing a local sanctuary for a reintroduction. Once the foundation of the new partnership is set, steps can be taken towards expansion, for example by inviting new types of partners, and taking on more complex projects. More information on nurturing partnerships can be obtained by researching topics such as social-ecological system resilience, or by attending a course or workshop in organizational leadership fundamentals.

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