Always look on the bright side of life

I submitted an article to Africa Geographic earlier this year and received a fantastically positive response.  The one problem, however, was that the content wasn’t positive enough about how conservation actually works so I was asked to edit it a bit – add some sunshine and glitter – and resubmit.  I have yet to do so because, quite frankly, I disagree with focusing solely on the success stories or on the positive side of absolutely everything.

Here is an article on Biodiversity Science by the founder of Animus Conservation stating why he thinks we should focus on the success stories, raising some relevant points.  I agree that, in an effort to highlight the importance of conservation and show it’s not a total waste of money as well as inspire the younger generation to be more environmentally conscious, it is very important to talk about and share stories of success.

But how do you learn not to do something if no one has made that mistake before?

That is why I think it is crucial to put equal emphasis on both the failures and successes in conservation.  Not only do we learn from our own mistakes but sharing the word about what didn’t work will help let others in a similar situation know they’re not alone (which is quite nice when you think you’ve just gone and wasted a bunch of donor funding) as well as inform those about to embark on a similar project.  Sharing of failures could also elicit advice from people/projects who have done something similar and have had success.

A big problem is that many conservation organisations are terrified of losing funding if they fail to implement what they said they would (because the donors are actually the ones in charge).  This affects the PR and marketing of the conservation organisations who try to always share positive stories (unless something or someone dies, or if a terrible story will raise funding).  The people furthest removed from actual conservation are the ones that are determining what information we share within our own community; not all conservationists know each other so media is an important information-gathering tool.

Why are we trying to portray a perfect picture when all conservationists know that things rarely go to plan or work first time?  Why does the media get to decide what story is more important than another?

It is dynamic field and none of us can preempt what will be the best strategy except Trial and Error.  What if we had access to sufficient Trial and Error stories so that we could reduce the amount of error we have to go through?  Now that sounds like sensible conservation to me.

 

Here are some links for further, interesting reads around this subject:

An article about the book “Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong” by Rosaleen Duffy

A PLOSONE article about conservation successes, failures and opportunities in Cambodia

An article by Science Daily about why conservation efforts often fail

This FAO document uses failures, and successes, to highlight things that should be considered in future.

The picture of maturity

Despite the public image(s) that conservation NGO’s like to perpetuate and develop, inter-organisational cooperation between such NGO’s is rather strained.  More often there will be cooperation, not because the NGO’s agree with, or have professional respect for, one another but because one needs something from the other.  It is imperative that readers note that conservation is a team effort and without such cooperation, however strained or difficult, it would be impossible to conserve and research wild places and animals.

I recently heard a rather disturbing story that spotlights the strain and competition between conservation NGO’s and how one person’s actions can have an impact on conservation in a whole COUNTRY – Zambia.

Some of you may know the people involved and the whole story, I ask that you do not mention any names in the comments and in posts if you share this on social media, as that would not help the current situation.  Let’s keep it civil and keep it as a lesson we can all learn from.  In addition, if the details are incorrect or something has been left out that is important to the story, please comment with the suggested amendment(s); remember not to use real names of people, places or organisations.

The story is as follows:

A conservation NGO in Zambia had a project managed by a very well respected person in the conservation sector, nationally, regionally and internationally, and has good donor backing.  In this narrative, this person will be referred to as “Santa”.  Santa decided, for whatever reason(s), to separate from the overarching NGO and take their project “private”.  This did not sit well with the boss of the NGO, naturally.  The CEO will be referred to as “Tinky winky” in this narrative.  Tinky winky then proceeded to fire not only Santa but a large component of Santa’s staff from the parent NGO.  In and of itself this was big news in the country and many people were shocked and appalled by Tinky winky’s behaviour.  Grumpy then decided to write emails to a large number of international donors in the UK and USA, many of which support more than one project in Zambia; I do not know what these emails said but essentially it was to “burn” Santa and remove any future support for them.  This email reached quite a lot of people in other conservation NGO’s in the county as well, many of whom know and respect Santa and knew their side of the story.  To add insult to injury, employees within the NGO told several outsiders (myself included) that Tinky winky took Santa to court over equipment, vehicles, etc. that had been purchased with funding granted to the project while under the parent organisation.

I was then put straight by Santa who said no such court case happened – merely a legal settlement was put forward and agreed upon by both parties.  Or, at least, agreed by one party and accepted by the other because no other choice existed.

So, what can we learn from this?  One person – one very egotistical, manipulative person – damaged the reputation of ALL conservation NGO’s in Zambia, potentially reducing the likelihood of repeat funding.  Why?  Because rejection was too much to handle for them; or failure.   What form of reprimand/discipline/backlash did that egotistical, manipulative person get?  Fuck all.  Why did they get fuck all?  Because “it’s good to be the boss”, and perhaps baby animals and the ridiculously high rates of internal conflict of interest at the NGO.

When working in remote areas with limited funding and expertise it is always wise to keep any potential help as close as possible, and making sure you maintain decorum in all situations.  I would not be surprised if, in this particular case, revenge was served cold and frostbite was suffered by more than just one man.