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Building Community Conservation Success in Zimbabwe

By: Dr. James Danoff-Burg

Ah! It’s so good to be back! After what eventually became almost four years of COVID-related delays, I am finally able to resume what I think of as my most important professional accomplishment! It’s the best thing that I have ever created, and how I can have the greatest impact on global conservation – our Building Community Conservation Success (BCCS) social science training workshops.

I am here in Zimbabwe with Katie Shaw (Conservation Social Scientist at The Living Desert) to lead three BCCS workshops for different groups of African conservation biologists and their colleagues. I first created BCCS in 2018 while working with my friends at the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) in Pune, India for almost two months. I received my first Fulbright Specialist award from the US State Department to help share my academic expertise and scientific skills with the leading-edge conservationists at AERF. They inspired me to create a cohesive course that would enable conservation biologists to better work with communities. The BCCS social science training workshop was the result of my time with AERF. 

Any biologist who goes out into the field to try to conserve species quickly realizes that they need to work with people. Often (okay, usually), this is the exact opposite of why many of us initially go into conservation – specifically because we love the animals or plants, not because we like people! This was certainly the case personally. I loved (and continue to love) beetles and ants. However, I realized that I need to work with people if I want to conserve these wonders of nature. It is not like the beetles have forgotten how to reproduce, or eat, or make homes, or otherwise secure resources. Species are declining because of our actions. As such, changing the behaviors of people is how we can actually save species.

Our BCCS workshops are designed to teach conservation biologists how to do the very basics of social science research. We structure these workshops like I structure all my teaching so that it is very practical and applied. The goal of the week is to go from a bunch of possible research and conservation ideas to the point that at the end of the week, they have an entire, well-designed, rigorously crafted research program. This program includes a thoughtful research question, elaborated hypotheses, creation of a mixed-methods survey/interview, a worksheet for data entry, an outlined sampling plan, and a strategy for data analysis, staffing, and implementation. 

By the end of the week with us, they will have everything they need to begin implementing the exploratory, research, or evaluation project that they will have designed! I like to say that by the end of the week, they are ready to begin surveying people on the following Monday. The strategy that we have created here facilitates and leads to some fundamental and essential changes in how conservation is being done. 

Building community conservation skills and understanding among our partners makes them able to better learn from and work with those who truly determine the future of conservation – the communities who live in and near where we work as conservationists. This is the future of conservation! 

The BCCS workshops are one of the most important things we do here at The Living Desert. They are the best way we can contribute to international conservation, and it is the single best thing that I have ever created. I am so proud of The Living Desert for being such a forward-thinking conservation organization and encouraging the development of this novel approach.

Stay tuned for additional blog posts from both Katie and me in the future!

Dr. James Danoff-Burg, Director of Conservation 

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