27 Sep 2016

Conservation: not just about the birds and the bees

© David Thomas
By David Thomas

When someone says the phrase ‘nature conservation’ what comes to mind? For many people it means the species and habitats being conserved – forests and oceans, tigers and whales, penguins and parrots. Many conservationists have embarked on their chosen career because of their passion for wildlife and wild places. They have followed a natural sciences training and have degrees in biology, zoology, botany and ecology.

Howeverin practice, conservation is a social process that involves decisions about the access, use, values and protection of nature. When a protected area is created it may bring benefits for some – through opportunities for ecotourism for example – but for others, who are denied access to sources of fuelwood or land for grazing, there may be negative consequences. The social, political and economic context (how people make a living from the land, who makes decisions on resource use, who owns the land) can impact the efficiency and effectiveness of any conservation initiative.

BirdLife International has a good track record of integrating conservation and development, as recent work in Mexico, Burkina Faso, and around Lake Victoria demonstrates. However, because of the typical training pathway to a professional conservation career, there are still many conservation practitioners who lack the knowledge and skills to address and integrate social issues into their work.

In response to this, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the Tropical Biology Association (TBA) and the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, have partnered to develop a flexible package of training materials to fill this knowledge gap among conservationists. The project materials, known as INTRINSIC, provide an introduction to the ‘social dimensions’ to conservation, and will help conservationists build an understanding of the social systems that will aid them in their work with people and local communities.

The materials comprise a trainers’ guide and accompanying set of slide presentations designed to be customised for the particular context in which the training is to take place. Subjects include community and social diversity, gender, conflict management, livelihoods and well-being. A range of governance topics are also covered, including rights-based approaches to conservation, as well as issues of equity, participation and power.

The material is delivered through a range of interactive activities and exercises involving case studies, role play, pair and small group discussions and feedback. The materials provided are designed for a 3-4 day course. However, depending on the learning needs of participants, and the time available, each module can also be used independently or trainers can choose to deliver a sub-set of the modules.

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Addressing social issues is integral to good conservation practice and long term outcomes. INTRINSIC training already provided in East Africa has received a positive response.  Prudence Ndabasanze from Rwanda, summed up the views of the participants: “The INTRINSIC course was excellent because it tackled all the challenges I am facing in my work.” Another participant wrote: “If I had had this course 5 years back, my work would have been a walk over. Now that I have the knowledge, my upcoming projects will be based on the concepts obtained from this training.” Paul Gacheru from Nature Kenya said of the course: “The skills have been shared with my colleagues who are engaged with local empowerment as well as our field staff. This course has enabled me to be a trainer”.

The INTRINSIC training materials can be downloaded here.


The project was funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund.