Conservationists share ‘core aims’ but no consensus on achieving them, study finds

The first large-scale study of the views held by those working to protect the natural world has found agreement on the goals of conservation – but substantial disagreement on how to move towards them.

Latest research reveals a sizable consensus among conservationists for many core aims: maintaining ecosystems, securing public support, and reducing environmental impact of the world’s richest.

However, the study also shows the global community is deeply split on whether to place economic value on nature. The necessity of protected areas – and whether people should be moved to create them – is highly disputed, as is the worth of “non-native” species.  

Dr Chris Sandbrook began investigating this dynamic while a Senior Lecturer in Conservation Leadership at UNEP-WCMC, and worked with colleagues from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leeds to continue expanding the research in his current role at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative at the University of Cambridge. The final study collected the opinions of over 9,200 conservationists in over 140 countries. It is published today in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The research uncovers some demographic variation. For example, on average women and those from Africa and South America tend to lean more toward ‘people-centered’ conservation, which aims to benefit communities and give them a say in conservation decisions. Men and those from North America tend to favour a ‘science-led’ approach associated with protecting nature for its own sake.

Next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity meeting will see UN Member States gather in Beijing to set global conservation goals for the following decade. The research team says their findings “raise important questions about whose voices get heard in conservation debates.”

“A core set of aims must form the bedrock of any social movement,” said lead author Dr Sandbrook. “We can see that the world’s conservation community is in general agreement on many fundamental beliefs and objectives.”

“When it comes to the mechanisms for delivering conservation, we find significant rifts emerge. In some ways the conservation movement is like a political party, where some underlying beliefs bind together people who don’t agree on absolutely everything. When big decisions need to be taken these splits come to the surface.”

While researchers took great pains to reach as many conservationists around the world as possible, they say their sample is still skewed towards Europe and North America.

Sandbrook cautions that the diversity of opinion the study is helping to reveal is often underrepresented: “There will be huge decisions taken about the future of conservation in the next 18 months. Let’s make sure we ask the whole global community, so we can build an inclusive and effective movement.”

While the study’s authors say conservation is facing “bitter internal disputes” over its future, their research confirms some key ideas around which the majority of conservationists coalesce. 

The study found 90% agreement for science-based conservation goals, as well as for giving a voice to people affected by those goals. Some 88% agreed that the environmental impact of the rich must be curtailed, and only 8% think global trade is fine as it is. Human population growth needs to reduce according to 77%, and only 6% think humans are separate from nature.

The fault lines in the global movement are also revealed. For example, only 57% think strict protected areas are required, and almost half (49%) believe it’s wrong to displace people in the process. Reports of ‘eco-guards’ suppressing local people in Africa’s protected areas have recently brought these debates into sharp focus.

“Our study shows that conservation is a diverse movement, both in people and ideas,” added Sandbrook. “As the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 meeting approaches, we need to improve the representation of this diversity when debating how best to preserve life on Earth.”    

Photo: Luca Micheli -

Have a query?