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Big egos, lack of training and poor governance compromise island conservation

Updated: May 15, 2023

April Burt and Nancy Bunbury write about their recently published paper in People and Nature

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, we find islands fascinating, and the conservation of their native biodiversity and ecological interactomes (such a brilliant word!) of utmost importance. However, working in island ecosystem management and conservation on different islands over many years, we also encounter similar problems repeatedly. From major and obvious barriers, like lack of funding or legislation enforcement, to day-to-day hurdles that prevent effective management of these critical ecosystems, island conservation is often more of an obstacle course than a straightforward race.

Aldabra Atoll UNESCO World Heritage Site, inspiration for this research (all photos copyright Seychelles Islands Foundation)

Inevitably, we talked often about these challenges on different islands – for example, how widely encountered are these barriers across island conservation? What types of issues are faced by practitioners working on other islands, and especially which have the biggest impacts for island ecosystems around the world?

We eventually decided to formalise our questions into a proper study and, with a brilliant group of co-authors, created an online questionnaire to target island practitioners across the world. We first trialled this on a willing group of colleagues from the University of Exeter in an in-person feedback session and incorporated their feedback (a very useful and recommended step). We based the survey questions on our previous study, a series of longer, semi-structured interviews of conservation practitioners in Seychelles, which helped to identify a range of challenges and barriers across all levels of management within this nation of 115 islands.

A practitioner's hurdle race to achieving effective conservation management (from Burt et al. 2021)

We then circulated the survey using a combination of established networks, targeted circulation to island conservation organisations and snowball sampling to reach as many island practitioners as possible, initially thinking we’d be lucky to get 100-200 respondents...

Online survey coverage of respondents' country of work in island ecosystem management and conservation, based on 360 practitioners. NB: Countries with a high number of respondents but not seen on the map due to their size include Seychelles and Mauritius.

In fact, a stunning 360 conservation and management practitioners working on islands in 77 countries responded, and while some of the barriers identified were expected, the responses also uncovered a whole raft of barriers that have barely been identified, let alone explored. So, what did we find…?

1. Governance hinders conservation and management efforts

The main barriers to effective island management are perceived to play out at the national level, with over 60% of respondents agreeing that ‘poor conservation policy implementation and law enforcement’ hinders management efforts. This suggests that governments are either not making policies to protect the environment or that existing policies are simply not effective or enforced, leaving frontline workers without the support they need to properly manage these critical ecosystems.

2. Lack of training opportunities prevents sound management

85% of the survey participants highlighted the skills gap, with 82% of respondents regularly having to recruit volunteers to fill skill gaps within the organisation they work for. Staff in many island nations collect data but then struggle to translate it into useful information that can be used to make informed management decisions. This could mean that, despite the masses of data being collected, downward trends in population size or ecosystem health are simply not reported - species therefore run the risk of serious declines or extinction before anyone can act.

3. Mismatch between skills taught and skills needed

There is a mismatch between the skills that are taught to students in formal conservation courses and the skills that are required in biodiversity conservation and management positions. We found that some of the skills that practitioners feel are most lacking in their organisation are not taught on any Conservation Masters programmes or if they are, the training is not sufficient to make a difference. These include data analysis, data management and leadership. Among many training gaps outlined by practitioners was the need for training in monitoring design and how monitoring can be linked to and inform management objectives.

The top 10 skills and training needs that respondents felt would assist in achieving management objectives

4. Big egos interfere with effective collaborations

One of the most surprising findings was that a whopping 84% of survey participants identified ‘big egos’ and other interpersonal issues between practitioners at high levels to have impacted collaboration efforts. This included a lack of trust within collaborations and blocking of data- and knowledge-sharing among practitioners, with issues such as possessiveness over data, species, or sites identified as hindering management connectivity and conservation efforts. This is alarming as it suggests that that egos and interpersonal issues hinder island conservation efforts worldwide.

From problems to practical solutions

The paper may be published, but the identification of these barriers by the island practitioner community itself is only the first step. Increasing awareness of barriers with outreach (including this article) is the next step. And tackling and eventually reversing or mitigating the barriers should follow. Our hope for the third step is that the survey results will help to:

  • leverage targeted funding for actions that bridge these barriers for island practitioners, including longer funding cycles, and resources for additional staff;

  • shine a light on some of the unexpected obstacles, such as big egos and data issues, etc, emphasising the need for better collaboration, greater trust and professionalism at all levels;

  • provide more evidence that suitable training remains a crucial gap in island conservation, thereby supporting organisations wanting to provide more and better training for staff;

  • provide the information needed to better align conservation training with skills needs within conservation organisations;

  • trigger the introduction of incentive schemes for high-performing staff to encourage them to stay long-term in conservation positions;

  • promote engagement between research institutions and practitioners from the outset, to overcome barriers through genuine collaboration.

A last word

Island practitioners work on the frontline of conservation, tackling on a daily basis the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, often against a rapidly ticking clock and with odds stacked against success. This study gives a voice to the entire community of island practitioners, who have told us clearly what the main barriers they face are and what they need to be effective. Supporting local people to do their jobs better is the only way to stem the current tide of biodiversity loss. Ultimately, this is one of the few ways islands will be able to effectively protect and manage their priceless biodiversity.

Dr Annabelle Constance conducting fieldwork for research into mangrove distribution and biomass at Aldabra Atoll.

To read more about this research, published in People and Nature, please visit:

We would like to thank our co-authors, and the fantastic community of island practitioners who helped circulate, respond to and comment on the survey.

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