Risky Conservation: How to Identify and Manage It

Danger sign. Photo by Flickr user deejayres.

Danger sign. Photo by Flickr user deejayres.

Conservation projects occur under many types of uncertainty. Where this uncertainty can affect achievement of a project’s objectives, there is risk.

For conservation projects, there are likely to be risks in both social and environmental space, ranging from invasive species outbreaks and climate-driven events like coral bleaching, to community reactions, policy changes, and insecure or inadequate funding streams.

As with all complex projects, the delivery of conservation outcomes is influenced by our capacity to assess the risks associated with our investments, and by our ability to manage and respond to these risks through time.

Despite the important link between risks and project outcomes, assessment of risk and use of this information has not featured prominently in conservation planning guidance or practice, either inside or outside the Conservancy.

When asked to review our business planning process in 2010, the Conservancy’s cohort of Sawhill Fellows identified the absence of risk assessment as the most significant and consistent weakness. This finding was echoed by the Planning Evolution Team. I know the same is true for other major conservation organizations.

Many conservation agencies and organizations (including ours) undertake risk assessments for legal, compliance, and reputational issues associated with potential projects (e.g., the risk of engaging with corporate partners or undertaking controversial strategies). Although these risks are undeniably bound up with long-term conservation success, their principal focus is not on the cause of failure of the project but the potential consequences of this failure.

Some conservation planning efforts in the Conservancy and elsewhere have assessed the likelihood of success of different projects or activities (which is roughly the inverse of risk of project failure), but have not further decomposed risk into the causes of failure. This matters because we are not passive hostages in the face of risk. The economist and historian Peter Bernstein has argued compellingly that this understanding of risk has been one of the most influential achievements of human consciousness.(1)

Risks to project success are rarely immutable. For example, the risk of a conservation project being derailed because of community opposition can be reduced through more substantial engagement with communities. However, there will almost always be a cost associated with ameliorating any risk.

Despite the broad influence that risk has on conservation outcomes, there has been relatively little discussion about how to identify these risks, and still less about how organizations should prioritize investment in monitoring and ameliorating these risks.

A useful way to think about risk is to consider two dimensions: likelihood and consequence. Likelihood is essentially the probability that the risk will materialize (although not always expressed as quantitatively as a probability), while consequence is a measure of a risk’s impact in terms of deviation from expected project outcomes should the risk occur.

Although knowledge of both dimensions is important, comparative analysis of risks is often accomplished by combining the two dimensions to give an overall rating or rank. This is the basis of publicly endorsed risk assessments in most countries, and in most corporations.

In an ideal world, assessments of risk likelihood and consequence would be informed by objective data. However, the complexity of the social–ecological systems in which conservation takes place means that most projects must contend with continually shifting contexts.

Conservation projects thus will rarely have extensive historical data regarding the likelihood (probability) and consequence (impact) of risks to draw upon. In some cases, conservation agencies or organizations might look to comparable experiences in other jurisdictions to inform base rates, such as violation rates of conservation easements in another state, or alternatively look creatively at tactically relevant data, for example, corporate non-compliance with other regulations might be used as a base rate for the risk that a company fails to live up to its expectation under some conservation agreement.

More commonly, however, I expect that conservation project risk assessments will involve subjective or semi-quantitative assessment of risks.

Drawing on research in the fields of risk assessment and expert elicitation, the Conservancy’s Central Science program and Australia Program developed a rapid subjective risk assessment approach for conservation projects. We applied the approach as part of the conservation business planning process for northern Australia. The risk assessment includes techniques to help identify risks, tools for the evaluation of likelihood and consequence in the context of project objectives, and ways to analyze and interpret the results.

A detailed description of the approach and the results in northern Australia can be found in a paper that we published in the open access journal Environmental Research Letters.(2)

We evaluated the overall risk results, both dimensions of each risk (likelihood and consequence), as well as the level of uncertainty in our evaluation of these risks.

The overall risk results are shown in Figure 1 (the higher the score the greater the risk).

Staff capacity and sustainable funding came out as the two highest risks for achieving the Conservancy’s vision in northern Australia. From a management point of view this is about the best news we could hope for from a risk assessment, because both of these are to a large extent within our control. It also means we can tell potential donors that we’ve looked carefully at the risks, we’re taking these steps, and what we need to really deliver on our visions is staff and sustainable funding.


Figure 1 Mean risk score, summed across all four project objectives in northern Australia. Higher scores indicate greater risk. The acronyms used in risk labels are explained here.

What can we do with this sort of information about risks? Conservation projects must inevitably live with risk; not all risks can be eliminated. Rather, risk assessment methods can help conservation projects prioritize which risks to manage. Broadly speaking, risk management involves four options:

(1) Actively ameliorate through strategic adjustment,
(2) Gather information to better understand a risk,
(3) Monitor a risk in order to respond rapidly when it occurs, or
(4) Do nothing.

Which of these options is most appropriate depends on both the level of risk and the around the estimates of this risk (Figure 2).


Figure 2 Four responses to conservation project risks depending on the relative importance (risk score) and level of uncertainty around the assessment of a risk.

A quirky thing about risk assessments is that if done well we hope they actually prove a poor guide to the subsequent occurrence and impact of risks. This is because ideally organizations will respond to these risks by making programmatic changes that serve to reduce their likelihood or impact. For example, in northern Australia the Conservancy has already responded to the issue of staff capacity and long-term financing, with the aim of reducing exposure to these risks.

Conservation funders do not expect the strategies and projects they support to be fail-safe, and my experience has been that they value honesty about the risks involved.

However, there are barriers to the explicit acknowledgment and presentation of risks. Effective risk assessment requires those involved to be candid about the project (and it provides a forum to do so). Unlike most other aspects of conservation planning that almost invariably benefit from being conducted in an open and collaborative fashion, an honest risk assessment may itself pose a risk to institutional relationships and funding opportunities, especially when risks refer to the reliability of key institutions or organizations or failures of leadership.

Given that building trust between organizations is frequently cited as one of the strongest outcomes of a conservation planning process (3), risk assessments need to be handled carefully (for instance you’ll notice that in Figure 1 we anonymised some of the organizations and political parties in question).

Identification, prioritization, and where possible, management of risks are important elements of using conservation resources in an informed and accountable manner, and will increase the likelihood of a project achieving the stated objectives. An assessment of risks to conservation success can be accomplished rapidly and effectively using the approach we’ve developed. So conservation planners out there, add risk assessment to your skills and practices.

1.” Bernstein, P.L. 1996. Against the gods: the remarkable story of risk. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
2.” Game, E.T., et al. 2013. Subjective risk assessment for planning conservation projects. Environmental Research Letters 8(4): p. 045027.
3.” Bottrill, M.C., et al. 2012. Evaluating perceived benefits of ecoregional assessments. Conservation Biolog 26: p. 851-861.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Eddie is the Conservation Planning Specialist with The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Methods and Tools Team. Based in Brisbane, Australia, he works across the organization, trying to improve approaches to spatial prioritization and promote good conservation decision making. Eddie received his PhD from the University of Queensland, under Professor Hugh Possingham, and has previously worked in fisheries and marine conservation. He has published on conservation planning, coral reef resilience, pelagic protected areas, dynamic decision making, evolution and mountain biking in Kyrgyzstan.

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