Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Conservation, evidence and policy

  • William. M. Adams (a1) and Chris Sandbrook (a2)

A growing literature argues for evidence-based conservation. This concept reflects a wider approach to policy-making and follows thinking in medicine, in which rigorous, objective analysis of evidence has contributed to widespread improvements in medical outcomes. Clearly, conservation decisions should be informed by the best information available. However, we identify issues relating to the type and sources of evidence commonly used and the way evidence-based conservation studies frame policy debate. In this paper we discuss two issues; firstly, we ask ‘what counts as evidence?’ (what is meant by evidence, and what kind of evidence is given credibility). We conclude that evidence-based conservation should adopt a broad definition of evidence to give meaningful space for qualitative data, and local and indigenous knowledge. Secondly, we ask ‘how does evidence count?’ (the relationship between evidence and the policy-making process). We conclude that there should be greater recognition that policy-making is a complex and messy process, and that the role of evidence in policy making can never be neutral. In the light of these issues we suggest some changes to build on developing practice under the title evidence-informed conservation. The change in terminology is subtle, yet it has profound implications in that it calls for a re-positioning and re-understanding of conservation science as one source of information among many for decision-makers.

Corresponding author
(Corresponding author) E-mail
Hide All
Adams W.M. (2010) Path dependence in conservation. In Trade-offs in Conservation: Deciding What to Save (eds Leader-Williams N., Adams W.M. & Smith R.J.), pp. 292310. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
Berkes F. (1999) Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Taylor and Francis, London, UK.
Brooks J.S., Franzen M.A., Holmes C.M., Grote M.N. & Borgerhoff Mulder M. (2006) Development as a Conservation Tool: Evaluating Ecological, Economic, Attitudinal, and Behavioural Outcomes. CEE review 05-014 (SR20). Collaboration for Environmental Evidence, Centre for Evidence Based Conservation, Bangor University, UK.
Brosius J.P. (1999) Green dots, pink hearts: displacing politics from the Malaysian rain forest. American Anthropologist, 101, 3657.
Bryant R.L. (2002) Non-governmental organizations and governmentality: ‘consuming’ biodiversity and indigenous people in the Philippines. Political Studies, 50, 268292.
Büscher B. (2010) Anti-politics as political strategy: neoliberalism and transfrontier conservation in Southern Africa. Development and Change, 41, 2951.
Cabinet Office (1999) Modernising Government. Cm 4310. HMSO, London, UK.
Child M.F. (2009) The Thoreau ideal as a unifying thread in the conservation movement. Conservation Biology, 23, 241243.
Collins H. & Evans R. (2002) The third wave of science studies: studies of expertise and experience. Social Studies of Science, 32, 235296.
Collins H. & Evans R. (2007) Rethinking Expertise. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA. (2013) FAQ. Http:// [accessed 25 February 2013].
Dickson P. & Adams W.M. (2009) Science and uncertainty in South Africa's elephant management debate. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 27, 110123.
du Toit A. (2012) Making Sense of ‘Evidence’: Notes on the Discursive Politics of Research and Pro-poor Policy Making. Working Paper 21, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, Bellville, South Africa.
Elgert L. (2010) Politicizing sustainable development: the co-production of globalized evidence-based policy. Critical Policy Studies, 3, 375390.
Fairhead J. & Leach M. (2003) Science, Society and Power: Environmental Knowledge and Policy in West Africa and the Caribbean. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Fazey I., Salisbury J.G., Lindenmayer D.B., Maindonald J. & Douglas R. (2004) Can methods applied in medicine be used to summarize and disseminate conservation research? Environmental Conservation, 31, 190198.
Fazey I., Fazey J., Salisbury J., Lindenmayer D.B. & Dovers S. (2006a) The nature and role of experiential knowledge for environmental conservation. Environmental Conservation, 33, 110.
Fazey I., Proust K., Newell B., Johnson B. & Fazey J.A. (2006b) Eliciting the implicit knowledge and perceptions of on-ground conservation managers of the Macquarie Marshes. Ecology and Society, 11(1), 25.
Ferguson J. (1990) The Anti-politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Fraser D.J., Coon T., Prince M.R., Dion R. & Bernatchez L. (2006) Integrating traditional and evolutionary knowledge in biodiversity conservation: a population level case study. Ecology and Society, 11(2), 4.
Gardner C.J. (2012) Social learning and the researcher-practitioner divide. Oryx, 46, 313314.
Guardian (2011) UK Marine Protection Moves Delayed. 15 November 2011. Http:// [accessed 14 June 2012].
Greenhalgh T. & Russell J. (2009) Evidence-based policymaking: a critique. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 52, 304318.
Hagen-Zanker J., Duvendack M., Mallett R. & Slater R. (2012) Making systematic reviews work for international development research. Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. Overseas Development Institute, London, UK.
Hajer M.A. (1995) The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006) Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making. Seventh Report of Session 2005–2006, Volume I. HMSO, London, UK.
ICSU (2002) Science and Traditional Knowledge: Report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge. International Council for Science. Http:// [accessed 7 October 2012].
Ingold T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, London, UK.
Jasanoff S., Markle G.E. Peterson J.C. & Pinch T. (eds) (1995) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, USA.
Keeley J. & Scoones I. (2003) Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa. Earthscan, London, UK.
Krska J. & Avery T. (2011) Do we need citizen medicine? New Scientist, 210, 3233.
Krueger T., Page T., Hubacek K., Smith L. & Hiscock K. (2012) The role of expert opinion in environmental modelling. Environmental Modelling & Software, 36, 418.
Kuhn T. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.
Leach M. & Mearns R. (1996) The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. Heinemann/James Currey, London, UK.
Nevo I. & Slonim-Nevo V. (2011) The myth of evidence-based practice: towards evidence-informed practice. British Journal of Social Work, 41, 11761197.
Observer (2012) Culling badgers could increase the problem of TB in cattle. 14 October 2012. Http:// [accessed 25 February 2013].
Peterson R.B., Russell D., West P. & Brosius J.P. (2010) Seeing (and doing) conservation through cultural lenses. Environmental Management, 45, 518.
Petticrew M. & Roberts H. (2003) Evidence, hierarchies, and typologies: horses for courses. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 527529.
Pilgrim S.E. & Pretty J. (2010) Nature and Culture. Earthscan, London, UK.
Pretty J. (2002) People, livelihoods and collective action in biodiversity management. In Biodiversity, Sustainability and Human Communities: Protecting Beyond the Protected (eds O'Riordan T. & Stoll-Kleeman S.), pp. 6186. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Pullin A.S. & Knight T.M. (2001) Effectiveness in conservation practice: pointers from medicine and public health. Conservation Biology, 15, 5054.
Pullin A.S. & Knight T.M. (2003) Support for decision making in conservation practice: an evidence-based approach. Journal for Nature Conservation, 11, 8390.
Pullin A.S., Knight T.M., Stone D.A. & Charman K. (2004) Do conservation managers use scientific evidence to support their decision-making? Biological Conservation, 119, 245252.
Pullin A.S., Knight T.M. & Watkinson A.R. (2009) Linking reductionist science and holistic policy using systematic reviews: unpacking environmental policy questions to construct an evidence-based framework. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46, 970975.
Pullin A.S. & Salafsky N. (2010) Save the whales? Save the rainforest? Save the data! Conservation Biology, 24, 915917.
Pullin A.S. & Stewart G.B. (2006) Guidelines for systematic review in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 20, 16471656.
Raymond C.M., Fazey I., Reed M.S., Stringer L.C., Robinson G.M. & Evely A.C. (2010) Integrating local and scientific knowledge for environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management, 91, 17661777.
Roe E. (1991) Development narratives, or making the best of blueprint development. World Development, 19, 287300.
Roe D., Elliott J., Sandbrook C. & Walpole M. (eds) (2012) Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Alleviation: Exploring the Evidence for a Link. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.
Sabatier P.A. & Jenkins-Smith H.C. (eds) (1993) Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach. Westview Press, Boulder, USA.
Sandbrook C., Scales I., Vira B. & Adams W.M. (2010) Value plurality among conservation professionals. Conservation Biology, 25, 285294.
Sanderson I. (2002) Making sense of ‘what works’: evidence based policy making as instrumental rationality. Public Policy and Administration, 17, 6175.
Segan D.B., Bottrill M.C., Baxter P.W.J. & Possingham H.P. (2011) Using conservation evidence to guide management. Conservation Biology, 25, 200202.
Shaxon L. (2005) Is your evidence robust enough? Questions for policy makers and practitioners. Evidence and Policy, 1, 101111.
Sheil D. & Lawrence A. (2004) Tropical biologists, local people and conservation: new opportunities for collaboration. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19, 634638.
Smith R.J., Verissimo D., Leader-Williams N., Cowling R.M. & Knight A.T. (2009) Let the locals lead. Nature, 462, 280281.
Stewart G.B., Coles C.F. & Pullin A.S. (2005) Applying evidence-based practice in conservation management: lessons from the first systematic review and dissemination projects. Biological Conservation, 126, 270278.
Stirling A. (2010) Keep it complex. Nature, 468, 10291031.
Sunderland T.C.H., Sayer J.A. & Hoang M.H. (2013) Introduction: evidence-based conservation from the Lower Mekong. In Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong (eds Sunderland T.C.H., Sayer J.A. & Hoang M.H.), pp. 313. Earthscan, London, UK.
Sutherland W.J., Pullin A.S., Dolman P.M. & Knight T.M. (2004) The need for evidence-based conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19, 305308.
Tengö M., Kvarnström M., Malmer P. & Schultz M. (2011) Potentials and Pitfalls in Exchange of Knowledge Systems in Cross-scale Ecosystem Assessments. Report from an Informal Expert Meeting with Representatives of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), EU Experts and Scientists Engaged in TK and IPBES. 21–22 June 2011, Jokkmokk, Sweden. Http:// [accessed 23 February 2013].
Turnhout E., Bloomfield B., Hulme M., Vogel J. & Wynne B. (2012) Listen to the voices of experience. Nature, 488, 454455.
Watson-Verran H. & Turnbull D. (1997) Science and other indigenous knowledge systems. In Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (eds Jasanoff S., Markle G.E., Peterson J.C. & Pinch T.), pp. 115139. Sage Publications, London, UK.
Waylen K.A., Fischer A., McGowan P.J.K., Thirgood S.J. & Milner-Gulland E.J. (2010) The Effect of Local Cultural Context on Community-based Conservation Interventions: Evaluating Ecological, Economic, Attitudinal and Behavioural Outcomes. CEE review 09-019 (SR80). Collaboration for Environmental Evidence, Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation, Bangor University, Bangor, UK.
West P. (2005) Translation, value, and space: theorizing an ethnographic and engaged environmental anthropology. American Anthropologist, 107, 632642.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0030-6053
  • EISSN: 1365-3008
  • URL: /core/journals/oryx
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 25
Total number of PDF views: 283 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 811 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.