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Optimism in nature conservation – for effective and successful conservation

Anna Varga, Hungary (Global Environments Summer Academy 2011 participant)

Optimism and nature conservation!? At first glance, the suggestion may seem rather improbable, sensationalist, and unscientific to the reader, knowing the present state of nature on Earth. The title, however, does reflect the actual content of my post. I present the substance of a newly arising tendency, or rather, mentality in nature conservation, and I summarize what I learned at a conference held in London – part of an international series of conferences (Earth Optimism Summits) – concerning this new way of thinking. (Words and phrases in italics within the text are referenced at the end of this article). To read this post in Hungarian, please click on this link.

In 2017, around Earth Day (22 April), Earth Optimism Summits were organized at several locations around the globe (including Cambridge, Washington, Hong Kong, and London). The participants discussed the possibilities of rendering nature conservation more efficient by altering, on the one hand, the attitude of the general public, and, on the other hand, the mentality and communication of nature conservationist experts themselves, and by reinforcing their resolution. One of the conferences of this series was called the Conservation Optimism Summit, organized jointly by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, an institute of the University of Oxford, and the Zoological Society of London. The event took place in Dulwich College, London, between 20 and 22 April, 2017. I participated as an invited speaker, as a member of the Global Environments Network (GEN), in the session covering, among other topics, the ‘Whole Earth/Half Earth’ concept. The session was convened by our network.

“Optimistic conservation” may seem controversial to many, as nature conservation itself has been conceived to solve the problems of the environment, and thus it is basically recognised as a crisis science, and, because of this character, it has always been overshadowed by a certain feeling of despondency and despair. As a result, even in the case of successful conservational activities, the emphasis was and still is often laid on the hardships and the problems which can be expected in the future.

This approach has been challenged by researchers, practical experts, decision makers, and locals, who have participated in the Earth Optimism Summit. This optimistic attitude towards nature conservation, which has been present for years and is gaining momentum as we speak (e.g. Jane Goodall’s work, Balmford 2012), does not endeavour to hide the rapid loss and deterioration of the natural values on Earth, but instead seeks to support the activity of resolute, committed nature conservationists and lay people as well. Its main aim is to enhance the efficiency and success of nature conservation by sharing successful precedents, drawing their lessons and following in their steps.

The talks held at the London Conservation Optimism Summit provide examples from all around the world, which demonstrate that there are indeed successful steps being taken towards the protection of our natural values. Andrew Balmford, Professor of the University of Cambridge, sketched a comprehensive picture which supported that the presence of this optimistic attitude in nature conservation is not unfounded, as many scientific results, from various parts of the world and concerning different taxonomical groups, confirm that nature conservation treatments and measurements have indeed happened successfully, and offer grounds for hope. These include, for instance, the increase in the number of several near extinct species, brought about clearly because of conservation actions (Durrell Index); examples include the Saint Lucia Amazon as well as the Great Egret in Hungary.

On the basis of the cases presented, I conclude that conservational activities have only ever been deemed successful or hopeful by researchers or conservational experts, when their aims were shared by and the work was carried out together with others outside the formal scientific or conservation community, and the long-term sustainability, or even enhancement of the results could be expected. To achieve this, above all, personal calling, endurance, multi-layered communication, and thinking and acting on the community level are needed (Goodall 2013).

It is difficult to choose one from the projects presented at the Conservation Optimism Summit, as every one of them held instructing and exemplary elements that I would be happy to share. (Detailed information on every one of these can be found in the source works – books and websites – listed at the end of this blog post.) For me, however, the most momentous were the following:

Personal vocation, courage and endurance are essential in the commencement, organization and fulfilment of a conservation project. This is shown by the work of Alan Watson Featherstone, who started the restoration of the natural forests of the Scottish Highlands 28 years ago. The work, which seemed quite hopeless at the beginning, is today verified by millions of planted trees, and the spreading success of the nature conservation movement ‘Trees for life’. Kerstin Forsberg also started solo work ten years ago, initially for the protection of the giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris). Today, she leads the non-governmental organization Planeta Océano (Planet Ocean), which reaches hundreds of thousands of people, and, thanks to its activity, in Peru, knowledge of marine biology has become part of the public education agenda.

Good examples are set forth by the increasing number of individual farmers, too, who carry out their work with consideration to the conservation of natural values, or with the explicit aim of restoring natural ecosystems. One of them is Sir Charlie Burrell, English landowner and farmer, who, for 15 years, on his own land, 1,400 hectares of the Knepp Castle Estate, has been developing his farming methods, focused on nature conservation, in line with the ‘wilderness’ concept, designed by ecological researcher Frans Vera.

Today it is beyond doubt that communication and education are essential in conservation activity. The aim of this activity is partly to increase awareness of the problem, and partly to mould the thinking and behaviour of those directly concerned, as well as the general public, and to enhance responsibility for nature conservation. The latter is of utmost importance, as the strength and abilities of individual committed persons are insufficient for the thorough resolution of problems. For this, the key lies in common language, frankness, and respectful communication. This has also been confirmed by the opinion of Hungarian conservation experts, when asked about the treatment of wood pastures (Varga et al. 2017).

The conference, not at all by chance, was opened by the lecture of Niki Harré, psychologist and professor at the University of Auckland, who also called attention to communication, exaggerated expectations towards others, and the acknowledgement of our own barriers. She offers advice on the establishment of a “sustainable and happy” lifestyle (Harré 2011). In the course of nature conservation activities, in order to solve conflicts arising from insufficient communication, the concerned groups are invited to common thinking (Mihók et al. 2016). The concerned groups may include anyone from one’s own children (Conservation Sisters) to office worker consumers living at the other end of the world, so the communication strategies applied and presented are also versatile.

Calling for arts and gastronomy is an uncommon, but none the less efficient way of communication. Nessie Reid, from Bristol, England, tried to raise awareness of extensive animal farming and the importance of healthy food with her art performance ‘The Milking Parlour’. She moved into Bristol’s main square for a week together with two cows, milked them, drank their milk, and held lectures and free discussions about the topic. The success of using arts is partly due to their ability to provide space and the means to discuss difficult topics and situations. Artistic interventions also open up new perspectives, facilitating better understanding of a topic. The importance of arts and gastronomy was the central idea at several of the conference sessions. Gastronomy concerns and connects everyone, as healthy and tasty food is good for all. I talked about this, among other things, in my lecture. Wood pastures are habitats of outstanding natural and cultural value, and their maintenance is highly dependent on grazing and the consumption of its products (Gasztroangyal – Wood pastures).

Nearly all the speakers at the Summit talked about similar processes: long years of scientific research and observations have helped them realize the problems, while real understanding and solution, or at least amelioration of the situation was, without exception, paved by cooperating with local residents (e.g. IPBES, Indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs), Roué & Molnár 2017). Real optimism about their own conservation activity appeared only after succeeding in this way.

Connecting with local residents includes many challenges and may produce failures, but everyone reported that forging connections, finding a common language, and thus improving existing communities or even forming new ones are worth the effort and time.

Among all the good examples shared, I was most fascinated by the cooperation of researchers, nature conservationists, and locals, fighting for the protection of the lions of Kenya. For local pastoralist and hunting tribes, lions only ever meant a problem and an enemy, and this without the majority of the locals having ever set eyes on a lion. This train of thought, namely, that “nature means and causes trouble”, which mainly concerns predators and taxa called “dangerous”, is obviously a basic obstacle for nature conservation. (We witnessed something of the sort in Hungary by the Tisza River, around 2006. We realized that the inhabitants of the riverside settlements, having abandoned utilization of the floodplains, had lost all connection with the river, and only “met” the water at times of flood, which do cause and mean trouble.) One of the first steps taken by the workers of the Kenyan ‘Ewaso Lions’ project was to acquaint the locals with the lions. As an important element of this, they organized lion-watching camps for children, so that they could meet real lions. The success of these camps began to arouse the interest of other members of the community, and after a while, from among the young men entering warrior age, a lion keeper group has been organized, and mothers have also founded a group (Mama Simba), on their own initiative. Today, locals know and record all the lions individually, and the loss of one of them is badly felt by the entire community. In relation to the protection of lions, not only did the local community become stronger, but conservationists and researchers have been flooded by hope and optimism. No-one can single-handedly stop global processes, such as the destruction and building over of habitats, but on the local level, one can share the joys and griefs of the protection of the lions with the people who share their habitat every day. It is obvious that children and adults of the area realized that when protecting the lions, they also protect their own communities, culture, and the landscape that is home for them as well. According to the project leader, the key to success was respecting the values, culture, and habits of the local community at all times. They laid emphasis on the thorough involvement of locals, who have been granted freedom to execute their own ideas harmonizing with lion protection.

The session organized by the Global Environments Network also concerned the mutual dependence between communities and natural and cultural values, and the importance of nature conservation for all areas. The lecturers of the session also tried to draw attention to the ambiguousness of the ‘Half-Earth/Whole Earth’ conservation concept by reporting conservation activities carried out at highly disparate locations across the globe. One of the aims of GEN itself is to provide a community for those working for the conservation of natural and cultural values.

In the past months, I had the chance to participate in a cooperation for a wood pasture with retention trees, the Kasztó ancient oak wood, in the vicinity of Bogyiszló village (for the example of a superb project with the local, public school about the biocultural heritage of the local ancient wood pastures). Witnessing the devotion and interest of local residents, and the power of education and arts in forming their attitude, all confirmed in me the validity of the lessons of the conference. For successful nature conservation, which is valid ground for our optimism, the only way leads through thorough knowledge of the problem, including local factors, personal and community level commitment, conscious, respectful and dedicated communication, education, and a community that supports and recognises its members.

Further information and stories about “Optimism and nature conservation” can be found on the websites of the organizations listed below, and the blogs accessible from there. The plenary lectures and other sessions can be watched on the Summit’s YouTube channels.

Email-address:, fb:

Earth Optimism Summit

#EarthOptimismSession – YouTube (among others, the lectures of Dame Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough)

Conservation Optimism Summit

Report of the Global Environments Network about the Conservation Optimism Summit:


Video link:


Forest restorations, Scotland:

Marine wildlife and environmental education of the Philippines:

Manta ray and marine wildlife protection, Peru:

Rewilding on the estate of an English landowner:

Milking in the city:

Wood pastures and gastronomy:

Lion keepers in Kenya:

Wandering trees, Tree of the Year, Bogyiszló 2016:

About wood pastures in the school, Kasztó Project, Bogyiszló 2017:

Further reading:

Balmford, A. 2012: Wild hope: on the front lines of conservation success. University of Chicago Press.

Goodall, J. and Berman, P. 1998: Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. Grand Central Publishing, pp. 298

Berman, P., Goodall, J. 2009: Amíg élek, remélek. Athenaeum Kiadó Kft., pp.244.

Goodall, J. 2013: Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants. Grand Central Publishing, pp. 384.

Harré, N. 2011: Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability,

Mihók et al. 2016: Ki mondja meg, mi a fontos? – Részvétel és természetvédelem.[Who can tell what’s important? – participation and nature conservation]

Természetvédelmi Közlemények, 22:131–154.

Roué, M., Molnár, Zs. (eds.) 2017: Knowing our Land and Resources: Indigenous and local knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe & Central Asia. Knowledges of Nature 9. UNESCO: Paris,

Varga, A. et al. 2017: Rangers bridge the gap: Integration of traditional ecological knowledge related to wood pastures into nature conservation, In: Marie Roué and Zsolt Molnár (eds.) 2017: Knowing our Land and Resources: Indigenous and local knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe & Central Asia. Knowledges of Nature 9. UNESCO: Paris. pp.76-89.

Anna Varga is an ethnobiologist-ecologist, assistant research fellow of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Research Group at the Centre for Ecological Research, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, PhD candidate at the University Pécs, and leader of the Hungarian Association for Land and People NGO. She was a board member of the International Society of Ethnobiology between 2012 and 2014 as a student representative. She researches landscape history, ethnobiology, vegetation and innovations of the silvopastoral systems in the Carpathian Basin. She is also interested in weaving traditional knowledge into education and the role of gastronomy in nature conservation.

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