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Uncovering the barriers to more effective island ecosystem management

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

April Burt is a 4th year PhD Student at the University of Oxford. April has been working in island ecosystem conservation for the past 10 years and is supervised by Dr Nancy Bunbury (Seychelles Islands Foundation) and collaborates with Dr Ana Nuno (University of Exeter and Lisbon).

Our new research with island conservationists in the Western Indian Ocean has revealed a raft of barriers operating across management levels, which interfere with their ability to achieve local and national conservation objectives.

What inspired this research?

Before starting my PhD, I worked for eight years with several conservation organisations in the Western Indian Ocean region, firstly in Madagascar and then in Seychelles. I was one of many practitioners working on islands to achieve local scale conservation goals. Over the years it was rare to actually see practitioners from other islands, let alone learn in detail about what work they were doing. But when we did have a chance to interact, we always had a lot to say to each other. We had so much in common, with many similarities in the lives we were living and the work we were undertaking. We also faced the same challenges and barriers to achieving our often-similar conservation goals. For example, we all struggled with managing the large datasets generated from the long-term monitoring programmes, and we often felt like we didn’t have time to really analyse all the data being collected.

While working with the Seychelles Islands Foundation on Aldabra Atoll with Dr Nancy Bunbury, we recognised and discussed many of the barriers impacting our conservation goals, and considered ways to overcome these, trialing and implementing solutions where possible. But this process made us realise that there must be many barriers operating at different levels of management that hinder the work of practitioners far and wide.

These and other conversations motivated our research to really define these barriers that practitioners face every day in their pursuit of effective conservation management. This meant embracing a new scientific discipline in the form of social science.

What did we do?

In 2019 we conducted interviews with practitioners across seniority levels from Seychelles, Mauritius, La Reunion and Madagascar. The interviewees worked in various establishments; some in NGOs, others in government departments, on private islands, or in academic institutes. From these interviews, we identified 33 main barriers in 12 categories, operating at national, organisation, and project/site levels.

(A) The proportion of barriers for each of the 12 main topics discussed during interviews, organised by the provenance level associated with each of the barriers, showing the percentage of barriers that fall into each level. Each block size is proportionate to the number of barriers that topic represents; (B) The number of practitioners who mentioned each barrier from the 32 interviews.

We assigned each barrier to one or more causes and found that all barriers could be attributed to just six main causes. The most commonly associated cause was limited capacity (23.5%), followed by lack of government coordination and limited resources (both 21.6%), lack of incentives (11.8%), poor leadership (11.7%), and finally interpersonal issues interfering with progress (9.8%).

Links of barriers from each provenance level (National, Organisation, Project/Site) to the main causes. Note: one barrier may stem from multiple causes.

Some of the barriers that practitioners described were not surprising following our own experiences on islands. On the whole though, the information these interviews generated was fascinating and extremely eye-opening. The shared perspectives gave such a poignant view of the struggles that practitioners are up against.

Examples of the barriers described by practitioners during the interviews.

To conclude

Gaining this level of insight is simply not possible without speaking directly to people at the frontline of conservation. By defining these barriers and the underlying causes we can bring them forward for discussion and find ways to overcome them. We conclude that focussing on implementing solutions to these underlying causes is the most effective way of bridging multiple barriers, but this will require national-level investment.

This paper was challenging but greatly rewarding to write, and we hope it does justice to both the practitioners who participated in this study and to all those whose chats over the years inspired this research.

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