Reliable data as a first step
The classification of an area as protected (regardless of the category) is based, or at least should be based, on data that reveal specific characteristics, notable as regards wildlife or nature (or even culture). These data constitute the basis for justifying the need to protect an area, draw up specific legislation and measures and to involve various stakeholders. Over the long term, these data can also be used to evaluate conservation efforts, to identify threats, strengths or gaps in a conservation system. Used as tools to assist decision-making they help to target actions and steer management programmes. Simplified and disseminated as suitable communication tools they can justify the human, material and financial investment required in a given area or be used for advocacy purposes. On the national or regional scale, political decision-makers often lack the accurate and up-to-date information on actual pressure on biodiversity required to make the right decisions and guide their political conservation choices.
Overall, the data gathered in protected areas respond to two main, non-exclusive objectives that are often promoted by different stakeholders:
- The production of scientific knowledge: protected areas constitute fertile ground for research and a large number of specific studies are carried out every year. Data to answer a specific question or scientific hypothesis are usually gathered by researchers in the context of specifically established protocols. Carried out in partnership with a University or research centre, this research is mostly used for academic (publications, diplomas) or educational purposes (internships and field experience). The type of data collected may, depending on the case, be very targeted, focused on a given theme or species, and often is to be gathered and analysed over a period of time that is incompatible with urgent situations or the daily work of managers. However, this is not always the case. More and more research is focusing on more complex situations (landscapes, communities) or uses data that already exists or is collected through intense but short surveys (social sciences), thus reducing the time taken to obtain useful results.
- Supporting protected area management: managers are interested in data that can help them to monitor and evaluate the state of the protected area, the impact or effectiveness of their action plans or to identify priorities. To do this, most management plans list certain data to be routinely collected by management teams. In African protected areas for instance, these concern wildlife or emblematic species populations, forest cover, burned areas, water source and wetland levels, tourism levels, poaching and other infringements, patrol frequency etc.
Ensuring that all stakeholders have access to the right knowledge
The different positions and strategies of conservation stakeholders on the one hand and research stakeholders on the other doubtless constitute a less well-identified, but just as important a problem to be resolved. On the one hand, research for biodiversity conservation involves a wide and diverse scientific community (ecology, animal and plant biology, agronomy, economics, anthropology etc.), while on the other managers, although increasingly better trained, do not have either the time or the skills required to keep track of scientific publications. However, they are regularly asked to grant permits for research in which they are little involved if at all. Furthermore, there is often a gap between the resources at the disposal of international research teams and those of protected area management teams working with national research bodies. Even when research needs have been identified by a protected area management team, these tend to carry little weight compared to the choices of international scientific teams. This type of situation leads to misunderstandings and research work that is of little use to drawing up management plans.
Standards for management and stakeholders
The difficulty of assessing PA management is the lack of standards to refer to. The ultimate assessment of the impacts of management (which should be what we are looking for) is indeed very complex. It should therefore be based on best practices, and on the literature describing these methods, or on specific protocols that will ensure that we can identify progresses or errors. Trainings must also emphasize this aspect and offer managers the opportunity to build their own protocol for monitoring / evaluation. At the end of the day, all stakeholders should be able to know their level of performance, and should access to guidelines that will allow an improvement among all of them. The PA management structure needs also to get more organized and should be officially recognised as the central coordinator of research actions (at local and national levels), making sure that research programmes and priorities are integrated into existing protected area management plans. But also that multi-stakeholder (managers, researchers, decision-makers, donors) dialogue frameworks are promoted to develop new multi-disciplinary research and decision-making models.
Constructive links between research and conservation would help to enhance management efforts, in particular through harmonisation of data collection methodologies and protocols so they can be replicated and compared from one protected area to another, on a long term basis. But also we must develop practical interpretation techniques so that data can inform decisions, and decision-makers.
Last, dissemination of knowledge at different levels is crucial for improving protected area conservation and moving towards effective decision-making processes. As we’re looking for PA stakeholders fully in charge, it is essential to “interpret” the results in order to give practical, understandable and useful information and to “translate” them into environmental advocacy messages. This information must be disseminated among all actors to ensure the best possible decisions are made and a particular emphasis should be placed on promoting and taking into account local knowledge, before reinventing the wheel. The promotion of new media for disseminating scientific knowledge would help to overcome current barriers encountered in terms of sharing results.