Hitting the Target…But Missing the Point

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Conservation is often a game of numbers.

Numerical goals, such as protecting 10% of all habitat types, often form the backbone of both international and national conservation policy.

Within The Nature Conservancy, numbers like these appear in our 2015 goal (to effectively conserve 10 percent of every major habitat type on Earth by the year 2015). At regional scales, such numbers are also a vital component of the Ecoregional Assessments that help guide where we work. In fact, I would argue that a commitment to such goals is one of the most important things setting the Conservancy apart from other conservation organizations.

Philosophically, these goals or targets represent the minimum amount of biodiversity that we want to effectively conserve. But despite their widespread use and international endorsement, reducing the critical mission of biodiversity conservation to cold hard figures makes many within the Conservancy as well as our partners uncomfortable. This is especially true when they take the form of blanket goals, such as 20% across all biodiversity.

Why the resistance? Because people misunderstand the larger value of such targets.

Some of the more common criticisms of numerical goals are:

  • They provide carte blanche for the destruction of other habitat outside the protected targets.
  • They are arbitrary and lack scientific credibility.
  • They are too low and don’t provide adequate protection.
  • They are too high as to be unachievable, and yet we are supposed to track our progress against them.
  • They are inflexible.
  • They are too simplistic — the world is not made up of protected vs. unprotected areas.

In a recent article in the journal Conservation Letters, Josie Carwardine and co-authors evaluate these criticisms and find that most result from misunderstandings, misconceptions and miscommunication. In response to the criticisms listed above, the authors offer the following thoughts about numerical conservation goals:

  1. They often represent socio-political goals. Rarely are goals like “20% of all habitats” intended to reflect a deep ecological understanding. Rather, their principal aim is to ensure equity across biodiversity, and help avoid mistakes of the past where economically valuable habitats were grossly underrepresented in conservation areas (conservation largely got the pieces others didn’t want!).
  2. They are easy to convey. If you are asked why the Conservancy works where we do in the world — it’s simple; we are trying to protect 10% of each of Earth’s major habitat types.
  3. They are politically tractable. Politicians like — and can remember — numbers.
  4. They are intended to be aspirational. Our conservation mission is not a failure if don’t reach them, nor necessarily complete if we do.
  5. Because our conservation work proceeds on many levels, areas above and beyond our goals are not simply sacrificed.
  6. They are more than capable of addressing complex problems. Lands and seas do not need to contribute in a black or white fashion towards these goals — any shade of grey is possible (e.g., an area open to line fishing might contribute to the goal for seagrass but not fish).

Too often, discussion around conservation goals is focused on ‘how much is enough?’ While this is an important and challenging question, I think it has also distracted from the multiple roles that numerical goals play in conservation.

The Conservation Letters paper provides a timely reminder — not just to The Conservancy, but all people interested in conservation — of why we use such goals and why they are important for our work. They will never suit everyone – but it is essential we clearly understand their function.

(Image: Native Sandalwood trees surrounded by farmland, Gondwana Link project site, South Western Australia. Source: Evan Parker/TNC.)

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  1. Great article–thank you. We at The Otter Project are currently thinking a lot about the importance of habitat and the pressures on it–land and sea. There are of course objections to numerical goals, and always will be, but they are useful nonetheless. What I am struggling with is the ability to use tools like numerical goals to address the overlapping land and sea connections, and by extension, issues that physically fall outside of habitat, but affect it nonetheless. Protecting otter habitat is a good place to start, but tools to affect issues that affect the habitat (i.e. water quality) but happen outside of it, sometimes at some distance are less clear. The legal and policy environment for this is full of potholes.

    Allison Ford
    Executive Director
    The Otter Project

    1. Thanks for the comment Allison.

      Your point about the challenges of planning across the land-sea interface is a really good one. Quite a bit of research is being dedicated to how best meet land and sea goals in ways that are most complementary, and recognize the important influence these environments have on each other. I can email you some details of these. It will always be a challenge dealing with negative influences from outside the area you are working which is why implementing effective conservation towards numerical goals is no small task, even when good areas to meet them have been identified.

      Best of luck.


  2. Hi Eddie,

    Didn’t see your response till quite a bit later–would love to see research you could direct me to that might help our work. My e-mail is allison at otter project dot org. Thanks!!

    Best wishes,


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