Making Space for Nature: Elephant Conservation in Mali as a Case Study in Sustainability


Susan M. Canney

Date Published

Making Space for Nature: Elephant Conservation in Mali as a Case Study in Sustainability
Susan M. Canney
Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development
March 5, 2021 

As environmental threats mul­tiply on a global scale, the uneasy coexistence of humans and wildlife is a growing challenge to policymakers who see conservation as a threat to end­less economic growth.1 Biodiversity conservation historically has been about saving species and protecting areas of land and water from the impacts of human activity. Protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation, with studies showing that well-managed reserves are generally more effective in safeguarding biodiversity.2 They are also more effective at delivering ecosystem services.3

In an increasingly crowded world, protected areas are progressively isolated and degraded by habitat loss and overexploitation, posing a particular problem for wide-ranging species that need to roam outside protected areas.4 Biologically rich places outside of protected areas are filled with humans, where governments are often overwhelmed by crime, coupled with inadequate support to conserve biodiversity in the face of competing demands from a range of exploitation interests.5

Conservation professionals have increasingly recognized that the human dimensions of biodiversity are components vital to the field’s overall success.6 At the same time, the perception of indigenous peoples’ and local com­munities’ roles in conservation has transformed the understanding of conservation outcomes.7 These trends have highlighted the need for approaches that seek to render conservation attractive to local people as part of locally relevant values and practices, while safeguarding human rights and social safeguards.5

Most conservationists are aware of the increasing complexity of their task and are looking for ways to address this complexity.8 The shift in focus has occurred over a relatively short period, with the scientific tools and techniques not always keeping pace.9 In recent years, scholars have built up a body of knowledge concerning change in social–ecological systems, but entry points for mainstreaming such thinking into conservation practice remain unclear.10

Obstacles include demands from funders and agencies that—under pressure themselves to deliver speedy impact and realize value for money—require detailed planning and targets according to specific templates that are designed for simpler systems. Hence much conservation management is distorted by oversimplification and standardization.11 Another drawback is the persistent (though slowly changing) organization of academia into disciplines (reinforced by research evaluation metrics). Researchers tend to analyze aspects of complex social–ecological phenomena using frameworks specific to their discipline. Understanding of the processes that lead to environmental improvement or deterioration is limited, because without a common framework to organize findings, knowledge remains fragmented.12

Dealing with complex, interconnected issues using approaches that are more adapted to smaller, simpler, more controllable problems doesn’t work in the long run and generally results in creating problems elsewhere in the system.13 A classic example is the European Union (EU) biofuels policy that aims to reduce its carbon emissions but that is accelerating the decimation of forests around the world (and failing to reduce carbon emissions as intended).14

Rather than breaking the problem into parts and assuming these can be understood through predictable cause-and-effect relationships that can be controlled, the complexity viewpoint explicitly recognizes the uncertainty arising from the relationships of different interacting components that simultaneously affect, and are shaped by, the wider system. It also offers approaches that could help conservation be more effective.10

Informing judgments through embra­cing a complexity worldview does not mean abandoning analysis, planning, regulation, and strategy. Being clear about the goals and persisting in their achievement are of central importance. Neither does it mean a set of new tools that fit within the familiar mechanistic approach. It means taking a wider view and planning for a greater degree of flexibility in responding to the unexpected, seizing opportunities, and adapting to changing circumstances.15