Investments in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management rest on human capacity. We need strong individual, organizational and societal capacity to design and implement conservation measures, adapt them and sustain their impact over time.

These capacity needs continue to grow and change as the context for conservation evolves. As we strengthen and expand protected and conserved areas, and develop our efforts to conserve threatened species within them, we need to ensure they are sufficiently and effectively supported, staffed and stewarded. Evidence shows that collaborative approaches and locally-led efforts are associated with conservation success, hence conservation actors and organizations, as well as societal systems, should be fostering greater engagement with and empowerment of local stakeholders. These new contexts raise new needs and challenges, and demand new approaches to capacity development in conservation.

Researchers, protected area staff, and students consider course proposals at a workshop in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo: A. Porzecanski

In this review, a group of capacity development practitioners and researchers combined their collective experience, discussions and lessons learned, as well as a review of practices from conservation and other sectors, to examine some persistent challenges in conservation capacity development and provide recommendations for moving forward. We advocate for a systems view of capacity development and share recommendations, in the form of a framework, that can help practitioners to adopt more holistic ways of working.

We identify two challenges or areas needing particular attention: the consideration of context and purpose in planning stages, and the need to focus evaluation efforts on outcomes and impact. Practitioners recognize that conservation work happens in context, that there are linkages between individuals, organizations and societal systems, and that the aim is to strengthen capacity at multiple levels.

Top Left: One of the training events run by the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group in Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo: OVAG. Top Right: Participants in the Colorado State University and United States Forest Service International Program’s Protected Area Seminar develop hands-on experience managing wilderness areas. Photo: Center for Protected Area Management. Bottom Left: Training of protected area managers on adaptation to climate change in Ambanja, Madagascar, 2018. Photo: LAFA. Bottom Right: The new vision and mission agreed during the organizational capacity development process of the Saint Lucia Forestry Department is displayed at the entrance of its headquarters. Photo: J. Daltry

Yet many capacity development programmes are designed based on a superficial comprehension of context, limiting our understanding of local needs and priorities, and of the role played by the complex human environment where conservation unfolds. In addition, prevailing capacity development practices generally focus on a single level, or rely on short-term engagements or single events. This can narrow our choice of targets, hamper inquiry into cross-level linkages, and reduce our ability to have broader impacts.

Our article reviews seven case studies from six regions, ranging from Asia to the Caribbean. Along with new research evidence, these cases point to a critical role of individual internal conditions, and the external context, both of which can hinder or enable capacity development. Considering insights and approaches from psychology and the social sciences, we call for increased attention to less visible but vital elements of capacity at all levels, such as values and motivation, leadership and organizational culture, and governance.

Left: A conservation practitioner holds a Critically Endangered skink at a Mauritian offshore island. Credit: J. Copsey. Right: Practitioners recognize the need to address capacity at multiple levels (represented in this figure by ovals). Some dimensions of capacity are often recognized and targeted (black text), whereas others are less visible and have traditionally received less attention (lighter text). Figure from Porzecanski et al. 2022. Credit: N. Gazit.

We conclude by proposing a series of guiding questions, organized as a framework, to help practitioners connect all stages of conservation actions to capacity development actions—from the initial assessment of capacity strengths and limitations needed for a given conservation initiative, to how we evaluate to learn and improve. At each step we should ask ourselves questions about how capacity development efforts connect to conservation work, and also how they connect across projects, across levels of capacity, and across sectors, as well as over time. A systems lens on planning and evaluation would help us better understand capacity development impacts across capacity levels, how changes in individuals and organizations influence each other, and what is needed for broader change to take place.

Ultimately, to transform the systems that drive biodiversity loss and unsustainable and inequitable resource use, we need to ask: what is our intended outcome, and how does it connect to the context where the work is taking place, and to the rest of the system? How can capacity development contribute to achieving conservation goals, and to what extent do concurrent or consecutive capacity development interventions complement each other? What intermediate capacity outcomes can we pursue along the way, to lead us in the right direction, and how will we know? Asking and answering these questions will strengthen the case for capacity development and its value, as well as conservation practice.

The article A systems framework for planning and evaluating capacity development in conservation: recommendations for practitioners is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Ana Porzecanski is the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. She is an evolutionary biologist and conservation scientist working to understand biodiversity and sustain it for the future through research, evidence-based management, and capacity development.

Eleanor Sterling is the Director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. She has over 40 years of experience in capacity development in conservation and in evaluating programs and organizations. She worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 26 years, as the Director and then most recently as Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Mike Appleton is a conservation practitioner working on applied, area-based conservation, and is currently Director of Protected Area Management at Re:wild. He has worked in more than 40 counties to help establish protected areas, create legal frameworks and governance systems, develop management strategies and plans, and build the capacity of staff and organizations, and since 2016 has served as the Vice-Chair for Capacity of the World Commission on Protected Areas.

Jamie Copsey is the Director of Training at the Conservation Planning Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in the design and delivery of training programmes for conservation professionals, from junior staff through to senior leadership. He regularly facilitates planning workshops.