Skilling up for contemporary conservation

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By Lindsey Elliott, postgraduate student, Faculty of Business and Law, Open University, and former Luc Hoffmann Institute consultant

Nature conservation is a complex endeavour on this busy planet of ours. To address this complexity, it is becoming more integrative, interactive and inclusive with a trend towards social awareness, transdisciplinarity and the co-production of knowledge and solutions. Yet recent studies have identified a mismatch between the training available to early-career conservationists and the demands of the sector.

While careers in conservation have always been incredibly varied, the move towards more integrative approaches has broadened ideas around the skills and abilities required for effective conservation. These lie beyond more traditional training in the natural sciences to include skills such as project management and leadership. In short, contemporary conservationists need a mix of skills to succeed.

How do conservationists choose the best training programme for their professional and personal needs and aspirations? Learning is a lifelong journey but early choices provide a foundation for future career pathways.

A review carried out by the Luc Hoffmann Institute and published in Biological Conservation revealed a diversity of conservation capacity-building options leading to an interesting range of choices for those embarking on a conservation career. Selecting the right one could seem daunting.

Training supply certainly exists. Whether it matches recent demands is another question entirely. Our research sought to understand whether what is on offer corresponds to emerging ideas around capacity needs.

Building a database of 650 postgraduate-level conservation initiatives helped us get a more holistic view of the availability and range of programmes while the available research gave us a reference point to understand skills and knowledge patterns versus the reality of training.

Our search revealed five areas of interest to contemporary conservation: policy, practice, collaboration, leadership and interdisciplinarity.

Within the great diversity of conservation initiatives on offer globally, a few interesting patterns emerged. Practice and interdisciplinarity are widespread priorities for conservation capacity development but leadership remains a relatively rare focus – only 9.4% of initiatives had a leadership emphasis. We didn’t find any initiatives with a leadership focus in Oceania, South and Central America, the Caribbean or Asia. This highlights a potential need to develop opportunities outside North America which appears to be a hotbed of leadership training.

We also found that the five focal areas are closely linked, for example, collaboration correlates with both leadership and interdisciplinarity. These connections could reflect a requirement for ‘foundational’ skill sets that underpin the focal areas:

  • Communication skills – an ability to listen and communicate clearly, effectively and persuasively, key to working with people from different perspectives, disciplines and backgrounds.
  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to build diverse personal networks, function in a team, collaborate, negotiate and resolve conflicts. Conservationists are increasingly working together and with others to address complex problems with capacity increasingly developed through mentoring and other forms of interaction.
  • ‘Boundary-crossing’ skills – that enable individuals to work across and within science, policy and practice, including being aware, open-minded and respectful of diverse perspectives and different ways of doing things.

Among the focal areas, policy was found to be the least connected. Many of the initiatives specifically geared towards conservation-related policy and law did not explicitly aim to develop capacity in other focal areas. It may be useful to explore how policy could be better integrated into conservation initiatives with other concentrations.

So what is our take-home message from this study? Although some conservation careers require training in all of the five focal areas we have identified, most do not. What we believe is most important is that a diversity of initiatives is available in each region and that collectively these offer capacity development opportunities across the focal areas.

There appears to be a gap in leadership training outside North America and there is a need to better integrate policy with other focus areas. We feel that regardless of focus, all initiatives should cover communication, interpersonal and boundary-crossing skills to prepare for new ways of doing conservation.

We still have unanswered questions related to the flow of people between countries and training courses, the reasons why people select particular combinations of training and the scale of less ‘Western’-style conservation capacity initiatives. This is just a starting point but we hope our findings will help capacity development institutions and funders improve the design and delivery of a comprehensive suite of initiatives that can meet the emerging needs of 21st-century conservation.

Take a look at the paper here