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There is No Such Thing as a Silver Bullet – Laura Kelly

We like universal solutions. But we know that ‘one-size-fits-all’ doesn’t really work. The same is true for conservation, yet we continue to jump on each development in conservation management as if it is the one solution that will fix all – a silver bullet. The complexity of environmental management calls for the use of various strategies in different situations. Biological, social and economic factors contribute to unique situations where conservation must be tailored to fit. Thankfully our history of environmental management has furnished us with a toolbox of management strategies. The trick then is in knowing which tool to use and when.

Conservation worldwide has followed a similar pattern of development from fortress conservation to more inclusive community-based conservation (CBC) [1-3]. This development broadly reflects changes in societal perceptions of the environment. A defining feature of these perceptions is the concept of “dualism” – the separation of us from nature [4]. Fortress conservation reinforced this view by excluding people from conservation areas. Prior to dualism, our relationship with the environment was largely one of subsistence living and balance – reflected in indigenous customs [5]. Now we are beginning to challenge the paradigm of dualism in favour of integrated conservation strategies that view us as part of the environment. Both fortress and community-based conservation have advantages and disadvantages – choosing one over the other requires an understanding of how they interact with communities and the environment to produce conservation outcomes.

Fortress Conservation


Fortress conservation is exclusionary – national parks and conservation areas are separate from where we live [3]. Boundaries of conservation areas are ‘hard’ and communities that utilised resources within those areas prior to their protection are often displaced [6, 7]. This is particularly a problem in developing countries. Due to displacement and inability to harvest previously accessible resources, fortress conservation often results in disillusionment with conservation goals and distrust in conservation authorities [8]. Participation in, and compliance with, conservation by local communities is low [8]. In developed countries, areas set aside are often those not utilised for development or harvest, meaning they impact local communities less [9]. The disadvantage of this is that protection covers land that was unlikely to require formal conserving in the first place.

Role of Communities

Ladder of citizen participation

Figure 1. Eight ‘rungs’ on the ladder of citizen participation. Note that this is a simplification of the true relationships, but serves to show different levels of community involvement. Adapted from Arnstein (1969). Click on the image for a larger size.

The fortress model views communities as barriers to conservation. Thus it is regulation-heavy and penalty-rich. Community engagement is often limited to consultation during planning – what Arnstein [10] would describe as ‘tokenism’ (figure 1). ‘Tokenism’ creates the illusion of participation despite us having little direct influence on management decisions. Unlike ‘true’ citizen participation, tokenism results in frustration over lack of control, apathy toward conservation and ill will toward authorities [10]. Ultimately, the goal of community involvement is to promote behavioural change consistent with achieving conservation aims [11]. Attempts to involve communities can be classified according to the power relations and types of action (figure 1). Participation is required to achieve behavioural changes, something not adequately provided for in fortress conservation. If community engagement with conservation is one of the goals of a management plan, then fortress conservation is unlikely to achieve it.


Despite these issues, fortress conservation has a place in our toolbox. This is because it has the ability to completely protect the habitat of a species or ecosystem that is fragile or extremely rare. In these cases, complete protection is desired to prevent extinction or decline below critical thresholds. Take New Zealand for example, where fortress management has been the tool of choice for some time. National parks cover 11.5% of New Zealand’s land area [12], with forest parks and other conservation lands also covering substantial areas (click here for an interactive map). Within park boundaries activities are severely limited to protect the natural values of the landscapes and biodiversity. Examples of successful fortress conservation can be found in places as diverse as Mkomazi in Northern Tanzania [13], Costa Rica’s National Park system [14], and Chitwan National Park in Nepal [15].Fortress conservation is generally at least partially successful in improving conservation measures (such as biodiversity) relative to surrounding areas [14]. Community acceptance is very low in many developing countries [16, 17], resulting in poor compliance and making these areas less effective than they could otherwise be.

Community-Based Conservation


Community-based conservation (CBC) is a more collaborative approach – generally taking the form of community-led conservation projects and protected areas. It acknowledges that we are an integral part of our ecosystems. CBC strives to meet conservation goals by incorporating social, economic and environmental factors into management [2]. We are not necessarily separated from conserved areas – sustainable use of resources is often encouraged.  Most CBC is small and focuses on local areas that have some value to the community. It is difficult to scale up CBC because of limited resources and different priorities for communities across large areas, making it a poor tool for consistent management at national and global levels. A further problem with CBC is that it fails to take into account differences within ‘communities’ [1]. The result of this is that decision making and communication have an additional layer of complexity which may discourage governing and funding bodies from utilising CBC.

Role of Communities

Dissemination of power is a critical aspect of CBC. That is, authorities tasked with conservation take a guidance and resource provider role, allowing communities to develop priorities and plans. Characteristically, CBC is based on either partnership or community control of conservation. This inclusive nature of CBC increases engagement and fosters truly meaningful participation, rather than tokenism (figure 1)[10]. Local and indigenous knowledge is incorporated in management plans and there is a focus on mutual learning [1, 2, 18, 19].  This leads to good public engagement and results in behaviour modification, which benefits conservation outcomes. In situations where local input and support are necessary to implement and continue conservation, CBC is a better choice than fortress conservation.


Although CBC requires considerable planning and communication in the set-up phase, it has a place within our toolbox of management options. Where funding is limited and a focus is on large-scale projects, CBC can help ensure that smaller, local areas continue to receive attention. CBC is best used where the threat of extinction or irreversible damage is low because it generally involves some form of resource use or extraction by the community.

Community-based conservation has been successful at the small scale in many cases. North American salmon in Puget Sound were successfully managed using CBC [20]. Several factors influencing the outcome of CBC were identified. The most important of these was similar goals – salmon preservation was important to the public, regulators and politicians [20]. Turtle egg harvesting in Costa Rica has also been hailed as an example of long-term success in CBC [21]. The interest the locals have in sustainable harvesting of turtle eggs has led them to take considerable steps to ensure the continued survival of the population. These include strict limits on tourism, harvest size and guards to prevent poaching [21]. Campbell et. al. [21] identify legal and administrative structures, combined with incentives for preserving turtles, as the primary reasons for the success of this CBC.

In some cases, the implementation of CBC has been unsuccessful. An example is that of the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area in Nepal. Mehta and Kellert [22] found that where the interests of local communities failed to correspond to conservation goals, CBC was ill-favoured. Attempts to incorporate wildlife conservation in this area were largely unsuccessful, with the local communities more interested in protecting the forestry resources that provided them with income [22]. CBC initiatives in both Malawi and Botswana have been largely unsuccessful, with only a handful of positive outcomes [23]. Blaikie [23] attributes this to the complex socio-political atmosphere in which CBC takes place – corruption, non-representative participation and poor leadership, in particular, were determined to be problems.

So then, which tool do we use?

If large, rare or very fragile systems require conserving, then fortress conservation is most appropriate. Increasing communication and compensation may alleviate the inevitable alienation of communities that comes from displacement.

If areas are small, in close proximity to people and require the compliance or participation of people to succeed, then community based conservation is the best option. Establishing the goals of the community and higher level managing bodies is required, and formalised management structures may be needed to ensure success.

Both types of management have advantages and disadvantages. They each work in some situations and not in others – reflecting the complexity of environmental management. Fortress conservation and community-based conservation should be considered tools in the kit to deal with conserving our natural environment.

Is there a silver bullet?
No. But there is a toolkit…



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2.         Armitage, D., Adaptive capacity and community-based natural resource management. Environmental Management, 2005. 35(6): p. 703-715.

3.         Berkes, F., Rethinking community-based conservation. Conservation Biology, 2004. 18(3): p. 621-630.

4.         Haila, Y., Beyond the nature-culture dualism. Biology & Philosophy, 2000. 15(2): p. 155-175.

5.         Gadgil, M., F. Berkes, and C. Folke, Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity Conservation. Ambio, 1993. 22(2-3): p. 151-156.

6.         Sarkar, S. and M. Montoya, Beyond parks and reserves: The ethics and politics of conservation with a case study from Peru. Biological Conservation, 2011. 144(3): p. 979-988.

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13.       Brockington, D., Injustice and conservation—is “local support” necessary for sustainable protected areas? Section I: The complexities of governing protected areas, 2003. 22.

14.       Arturo Sánchez-Azofeifa, G., et al., Integrity and isolation of Costa Rica’s national parks and biological reserves: examining the dynamics of land-cover change. Biological Conservation, 2003. 109(1): p. 123-135.

15.       Martin, E.B. and L. Vigne, Nepal’s rhinos-one of the greatest conservation success stories. Pachyderm, 1996. 21: p. 10-26.

16.       Bhagwat, S.A. and C. Rutte, Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2006. 4(10): p. 519-524.

17.       Brown, K., Three challenges for a real peoplecentred conservation. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 2003. 12(2): p. 89-92.

18.       Petts, J., Learning about learning: lessons from public engagement and deliberation on urban river restoration. Geographical Journal, 2007. 173: p. 300-311.

19.       Novacek, M.J., Engaging the public in biodiversity issues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2008. 105: p. 11571-11578.

20.       Kellert, S.R., et al., Community natural resource management: promise, rhetoric, and reality. Society & Natural Resources, 2000. 13(8): p. 705-715.

21.       Campbell, L.M., B.J. Haalboom, and J. Trow, Sustainability of community-based conservation: sea turtle egg harvesting in Ostional (Costa Rica) ten years later. Environmental Conservation, 2007. 34(02): p. 122-131.

22.       Mehta, J.N. and S.R. Kellert, Local attitudes toward community-based conservation policy and programmes in Nepal: a case study in the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area. Environmental Conservation, 1998. 25(04): p. 320-333.

23.       Blaikie, P., Is small really beautiful? Community-based natural resource management in Malawi and Botswana. World development, 2006. 34(11): p. 1942-1957.


About the author:

Bayer Photo 3
I am a student currently completing an Honours degree in ecology and biodiversity at Victoria University.
My passion is for the environment, particularly finding ways to conserve New Zealand’s unique natural heritage.
My current research is on possum behaviour, with the view to using pheromones for possum control (click here or here for more information).