For many years, education has been an integral part of conservation efforts. Show people how valuable this species and that habitat are, and they will understand why we are trying to protect them. Not so simple, says Dr Danielle Nilsson. Changing attitudes is all very well, but for education to be effective it must change behaviour – and be seen to be doing so.
The world’s biodiversity is facing its greatest challenges today, despite a long history of conservation programmes. I, along with many other conservationists, am driven to understand how we can create more effective programmes to address the urgent global issues facing our wildlife. I am frequently in discussion with conservation practitioners, researchers, NGOs, advocates and even the general public and I often hear people say that we need to educate people if we are to solve our conservation problems. At the very least, education programmes are often considered an essential adjunct to every other conservation strategy, whether that comprises alternative livelihoods, incentives or prohibitions and fines, to name just a few. The educational component itself can range from providing opportunities to view wildlife films to organising classroom presentations, pamphlet deliveries, media campaigns, tourist visitor centres and community workshops, among others.
We’ve been led to believe that when people know better, they do better. But as a researcher with a background in psychology and a purpose to provide guidance on how to promote environmental conservation behaviour, I sought to find evidence for how we can achieve this. In doing so, I came across a worrying and persistent theme: education programmes without evidence of impact.
In 2016, my co-authors and I published a paper in Biological Conservation showing that a review of community-based conservation programmes that quantitatively measured conservation behaviour in developing countries frequently reported the use of conservation education as an additional strategy to other primary community-based conservation strategies. The overall goal of this paper was to understand how community-based conservation programmes in these developing countries change human behaviour. The issue, however, was the very limited research into, and evidence of, the impact of the educational components of these programmes on people and their direct or indirect actions to conserve. Therefore, we could only speculate – as did the original authors of the reviewed papers – about the reasons why, and if, education can promote change in the behaviour of individuals.
These findings should be of concern to conservation researchers and practitioners who are under extreme pressure to deliver measurable conservation outcomes. Significant time and resources are invested in conservation education, even though there is very limited evidence of its success. Without understanding how these programmes are influencing people, it is impossible to learn from them and alter future projects to work more effectively. Increasingly scarce resources in conservation mean that practitioners have to prioritise where money is spent – and this is invariably on strategies that are likely to achieve the most impact. However, without evidence of the impact of such education programmes in these developing contexts, we cannot know if, and when, they are important and required, or whether money could be better spent on other conservation strategies.
The information deficit model has largely dominated behaviour change campaigns, both within and outside the conservation sphere. This model implies that people lack knowledge about a certain topic and if they are provided with information that fills this gap, they will change their behaviour. For instance, we assume that communities may not be aware that a species is critically endangered or is crucial to the ecosystem and that if they are given this key information, they will be more likely to act in ways that conserve the species and the ecosystem. Unfortunately, this simplistic thinking about human behaviour has been ineffective at facilitating progressive change in the conservation movement around the world.
Another pivotal assumption within many of these education campaigns is that changing attitudes is important for conservation. For instance, in 2015 Rakotonmamonjy et al published research in Animal Conservation on the efficacy of environmental education in rural Madagascar, but focused on knowledge and attitudes as outcomes rather than on behaviour. However, the psychological and conservation social science literature demonstrates a strong need to move away from a focus on purely attitude-based outcomes, as they are not a proxy for behaviour. Instead it is now argued, and quite well accepted, that successful conservation ultimately relies on changing human behaviour. After all, the problems facing wildlife and the natural environment are a result of human actions.
Researchers Kling and Hopkins investigated the effect of education programmes in primate conservation, publishing their results in the American Journal of Primatology in 2015. They too found a greater need for the thorough reporting of participants’ behaviour rather than outcomes relating to their attitude or knowledge. Psychological research demonstrates the importance of focusing on investigating attitudes and knowledge as potential influential variables and cautions against viewing them as outcome variables, as in the past. Instead it is behaviour, or people’s actions, that we need to focus on now.
For instance, a programme designed by Proyecto Titi to conserve the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin in Colombia included extensive educational programmes that were reported to have created knowledgeable individuals who were concerned for the environment. However, focus group data suggested that economic constraints meant that people still struggled to align their actions with these concerns or knowledge.
Projeto TAMAR-IBAMA, a programme designed in Brazil for the conservation of sea turtles, had a range of educational initiatives: school presentations; pamphlets with information on how to save turtles caught accidentally by fishermen; community outreach to increase local awareness of the importance of healthy marine ecosystems; and tourism-based campaigns. These education efforts existed alongside the employment of former egg poachers to patrol the beaches and protect turtle nests. However, there was no direct evidence to suggest what impact these strategies were having on the programme or to what extent each component was important.
Perhaps the strongest reasoning brought to light by our review for people engaging in conservation behaviour as a result of education related to teaching people conservation techniques. This could imply a mechanism of ‘self-efficacy’ or ‘skill’. For example, it seems that a tree planting initiative in Nepal that provided technical support such as free seedlings and advice on planting methods led to an increase in trees planted on private land.
Furthermore, in the Proyecto Titi programme in Colombia, education was provided in the form of instructions on how to use bindes (small cooking stoves made from clay) as well as how they benefit tamarin conservation efforts. This has reduced the number of trees used for firewood. However, it was not clear to what extent the education provided about how using bindes benefits the conservation of tamarins influenced an individual’s decision to make use of them. Nevertheless, this kind of result suggests that it may be better to spend money on teaching people new skills and techniques that have a direct conservation value rather than on providing knowledge about species or ecosystems in general.
Cartwright et al, who investigated the effect of conservation education in great ape reintroduction programmes in the Republic of Congo in Environmental Education in 2012, highlight that conservation education programmes are often created on an ad hoc basis and managed in an impromptu and intuitive manner that lacks priority, expertise and funding. In effect, they would benefit from systematic evaluation during all stages of their development. The researchers’ objectives should be commended but, as they note themselves, since the research methodology was naturalistic and qualitative, the findings should be treated with caution.
Moving forward, we therefore need to focus on strengthening investigation into the effect of education on the reasoning of individuals to engage in various conservation actions. Ideally, this would be through quantitative measures of behaviour change. The notion that education is essential to any conservation programme to overcome our environmental problems is too simplistic for the complexity of these problems. That is not to say that education is not potentially important, or that it does not have a role, but without the scientific research to guide us, we are simply continuing to act in an impromptu and intuitive manner.
Overall, there is a strong need for scientific research into the impact of these education programmes. Past research and lessons demonstrate that education programmes based on shifting people’s attitudes and filling gaps in information are in themselves largely ineffective when it comes to prompting changes in behaviour. As conservationists, we need to move past the intuitive thinking that has shaped the approach to designing conservation programmes, particularly those with social science requirements. We need evidence to guide our decisions – and that requires investigation, through rigorous social science, into the impact that education has on people and their decisions to engage (or otherwise) in conservation actions.
This raises another important issue: the need for closer working relationships between conservation practitioners and researchers. It is essential that we work together if we want to create the changes that we desire. Researchers have a responsibility to conduct impact-oriented research that is up to date, interdisciplinary and can be applied to real world contexts. Practitioners have a responsibility to utilise this research and not spend money on ‘gut feelings’ or outdated notions.
Most importantly, we must move forward and not fall into the trap that if we know better, we do better. Human behaviour isn’t as simple as we like to think it is. But there is hope. By conducting scientific research, and drawing on it, we can guide a more effective use of time and resources. To do this, researchers and practitioners should work together so that conservation education programmes can be designed and implemented through evidence-based approaches. Only then can scarce funding and resources be used most effectively to generate the greatest conservation impact.