If you’ve published a scientific paper in a journal, you’ll know that part of the challenge is making it relevant to a broad audience. Why should a conservationist in Outer Mongolia, Zambia, Murmansk, or Baton Rouge care about your study? Chances are they study )or are concerned with/interested in) different species in different places. The pressure, therefore is to wrap much of our conservation science in global policy and priority frameworks: the Aichi Targets, multilateral environmental agreements, globally threatened species, or highly imperilled habitats. Which is good and fine and has resulted in lots of policy relevant science and conservation action.
But conservation also operates on a much smaller, more local scale, and with individuals on the ground in communities who can influence local, regional, and national policies and conservation actions. And this requires the science underpinning these actions to be, at least in part, local in nature. Sure, we all know that global warming is driving our planet further down the 6th Great Extinction, but most people will only take action when they see this manifest in their own backyards. Why have the doves returned a month early? Where did all the swifts go? Weren’t there fish in this lake?
And this is where “local” conservation science comes in. And it’s some of the most rewarding science with which I’ve been involved, even though it can be some of the most difficult science to publish. Providing the evidence base for local problems gives scientists and conservationists a better bargaining chip when holding governments to account, to speaking with the public and with media. A local story is usually more relatable than one from a seemingly abstract land far away.
Local conservation needn’t be novel, ground-breaking, cutting-edge, or revolutionary. It’s purpose is rather different, though from an implementation perspective just as important (if not more so). But this very nature makes it a more difficult problem for academic researchers to tackle as it’s unlikely to be of global significance, gain copious citations, or end up in a journal with an impact factor >4. It therefore often falls to scientists in government agencies, independent researchers, and non-governmental organizations to contribute to this science.
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a couple of these kinds of studies, and have a few more in the pipeline. We showed migratory patterns and geographic distribution of a Flesh-footed Shearwaters in the northeast Pacific Ocean (Bond & Lavers 2015), and described the current status & threats facing Streaked Shearwaters in the Korean peninsula (Hart et al. 2015). In these papers, we learned a heck of a lot about the species involved, and hope that these will become go-to papers when someone compiles details into whole-species assessments of status, distribution, and threats.
Overall, the key to success with local conservation science is the involvement of local people. The paper on shearwaters in Korea was only possible because of people in Korea. The same is true of the other (as yet unpublished) bits of work I’m involved with. These local connections make the work more likely to be well received (if received at all) by the people who matter (those who will enact policy or implement conservation interventions on the ground). The days of colonial science, where outsiders (often from the UK, US, or other countries with an advanced state of scientific inquiry) come in, do something, leave, and then issue what amount to scientific edicts (which are often promptly ignored) are over (or at least should be).
But, for me, the bottom line is that I find this kind of science fun. It’s adding a piece to a puzzle, and I find it very rewarding, especially when it’s highly driven by local collaborators (I usually just provide some stats, and editing… they do the real work of data collecting, and then working with the community to influence change). And at the end of the day, I like to think that it has some benefit for the species and sites we’re trying to look after.