What is Success in Conservation?

The face of failure. Javan tigers became extinct in the 1970s. Photo by A. Hoogerwerf
The Javan tiger, which went extinct in the 1970s.

Conservation is very difficult.

When people say that something is not rocket science, I often reply that compared to the complexities of conservation, shooting a rocket into the sky is easy.

In conservation we deal with pretty much all conceivable interactions between people, the environment and millions of species. On top of that, politics, the economy and a range of other factors play major roles in conservation.

And there is further complication. Most people consider conservation as a luxury choice. Something they will commit to once more important issues, like the education of their children, the food on their table, their health and safety, their pension funds or the next game of their favorite football club have been adequately seen to.

Yes, we all like a bit of nature, especially while holding a cold beer. But how much are we willing to sacrifice in our personal lives for an improvement of the global state of nature?

That question is a bit unfair. Because we rarely know how much conservation we get out of a particular investment

One of the big problems in conservation is that we haven’t defined what success would actually look like. In contrast, we know failure when we see it. Conservation of the Javan tiger is a failure (see photo above), because it is now extinct. Easy.

But what is conservation success? Is it finding the last pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers, and breeding them back to a viable population? Or is it something much more broad and elusive: working together towards a world where happy people live in harmony with the environment and species around them?

We need clearly demonstrated successes on all fronts to show people what the world could look like if we managed it better. And we need to convince people that all their efforts towards such better management count.

Only once there is general agreement that conservation is essential for our own success on this planet will we make some real progress.

Maybe then I can kick back and enjoy the sunset with that cold beer. And who knows, when I am really relaxed, I may even try to solve some of the outstanding issues in rocket science.

(Image: Javan tiger. Credit: A. Hoogerwerf.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I want to be a voice for what success looks like. I want to play a key role in a new facet of TNC whose sole purpose is to demonstrate what success looks like and how it feels.

    The more we focus on how much compromise needs to happen, what sacrifices we need to make in order to participate in conservation, the more difficult the whole concept appears to become! Perspective is everything! People have a gut reaction when we tell them it’s time to “sacrifice”. The times of “sacrifice for the good of all” are obsolete – it’s now time to flourish for the good of all!

    Let’s define success as what best compliments. We don’t have to choose between our lives and conservation – we can have it all!

    Of course there are still many who will look at the bottom line and want to take the short-term profits, but it’s not going to help our planet for its humans to judge each other for acting like humans.

    Conservation has become a heavy word in the ears of many. Let’s lighten it up! Remember that we all came into this field for our love of the planet and not be ashamed to talk about it that way. We have tremendous scientific knowledge and data to support the validity of our choices to care for the planet, and this support will only continue to expand. Yes, continue to study. Yes, share the data.

    The efficacy of data is in its presentation. Let’s uncover all of the faces of success and give people plenty to feel genuinely good about.

    1. Hi Kerri,

      Thanks for your comments and suggestions. Let me take these in and think about it, but I like your broad thinking.

      All the best


  2. The inherent problem with this dynamic is that it took people to mess things up as much as they have, so it’s going to take people to put things back in order…and when you have humans trying to control the situation you can never create something so organic that it could have replaced what nature would have done in the first place. Just a catch-22. Of course we still have to do our best.

  3. Peter Forbes, from the Center for Whole Communities, would agree that success would be closer to the more broad and elusive direction you suggest. The problem then becomes one that the conservation movement must really sit down and reflect internally on: He says: “What organizations and communities measure often determines what they pay attention to and says much about what they value. We believe that one of the greatest challenges currently faced by the conservation movement – and others seeking to create stronger relationships between healthy people, communities and lands – is the way we define, talk about and measure success. The challenge is that we become what we measure, and conservationists primarily measure dollars, acres, and biological diversity..”

    Check out another way to measure success at http://www.measuresofhealth.net/

    “Conservation’s real success is bigger than biological diversity, bigger than smart growth, bigger than wilderness designations. It’s even bigger than the 14 million acres conserved by conservationists in the last decade. Real success is conservation’s ability to re-define for Americans their health, their relationships, and their sense of fairness. Real success is achieved when conservationists work in partnership with other groups to engage more people in building just and vibrant communities. Real success is found in conservation’s contribution to restoring our common wealth – the natural, social, civic and economic assets held in common for the well-being of all community members.”

  4. Hi Erik, I am a grad student at Caltech originally from Kalimantan and we are actually looking into carbon credits mechanism for conservation as you wrote about in your nature.org piece “Can Carbon Market Save Orangutans?” Several professors and investors here are interested, and I was wondering if I could write you directly about this. My email is slinardi at caltech dot edu.

  5. Managing nature (conservation) is not observing nature (natural history) and there is one thing of which there is absolutely no doubt: those who fight change on a planet that never stops changing, will never find satisfaction and thus will always be able to turn change resistance (and their own managemental arrogance) into a source of income. In the words of Charles Darwin:

    “We need not marvel at extinction; if we must marvel, let it be at our own presumption in imagining for a moment that we understand the many complex contingencies on which the existence of each species depends.” – Charles Darwin, On The Origin Of Species. (www.destinyofspecies.com)

  6. Perhaps the colder the beer (and possibly more of same), the more fruitful conservation efforts will be. Even if this important work is minimized to the point of entertainment, we could ask for no better popularization of the causa populus. The more people that know, even if in passing, the better the ecosystem will be!

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