It was my pleasure to participate in a panel discussion on Innovations in Behavioral Science for Conservation at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) last night, December 16th 2021.
The panel was organised by Dr Erik Thulin, the behavioral science lead at the Rare’s Center for Behavior and Environment, and other participants were Dr Ganga Shreedhar (LSE), Dr Philipe Bujold (Rare), and Dr Kira Sullivan-Wiley. We had a really active discussion with our audience covering many issues at the cutting edge of conservation behaviour change.
The first question was about the ethics of behaviour change. We discussed the colonial and very coercive history of conservation, and how behavioural science is an opportunity for bring neglected perspectives into the design of programmes through co-production. In the end, I believe behaviour change can only be successful in the long-term when it expands autonomy and opportunities to make good decisions.
Another audience member asked about the role of ‘key influencers’ and how these can be identified in network studies or using cheaper methods. In my response, I briefly summarised some of the other ways that key influencers can be identified (i.e. sampled surveys, key informants, using proxy indicators – but these are very context specific). We then highlighted that key influencers are crucial for driving widespread change, but are often risk-averse and have social positions to maintain. This means they rarely are at the forefront of new innovations. Initially, it might be more fruitful to build relations amongst others who are willing to take risks and empower them to influence others.
Are all behaviour changes gradual and dependent on the painstaking work of building and changing social norms? Dr Philipe Bujold pointed out some of the ways in which providing simple decision tools or changing the context in which decisions are made can have big and immediate impacts. For example, they provided fisherfolk with a tool to identify crabs that are too small to catch. Given that the fisherman were already interested in maintaining the sustainability of their crab stocks, the tool was quickly adopted and ensured the crab population could keep reproducing.
A recording of the discussion may be available soon, and you can view my recorded presentation at the top of this page.
I was priviliged to speak at the 2021 Science-Technology-Society Seminar, hosted by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. I spoke about the role of applied social science in supporting efforts to conserve biodiversity and One Health.
You can watch the video at the link below. My talk starts at 44:00
Social networks are critical to the success of behavioral interventions in conservation because network processes such as information flows and social influence can enable behavior change to spread beyond a targeted group. We investigated these mechanisms in the context of a social marketing campaign to promote a wildlife poisoning hotline in Cambodia. With questionnaire surveys we measured a social network and knowledge and constructs from the theory of planned behavior at 3 points over 6 months. The intervention initially targeted ∼11% (of 365) of the village, but after 6 months ∼40% of the population was knowledgeable about the campaign. The likelihood of being knowledgeable nearly doubled with each additional knowledgeable household member. In the short term, there was also a modest, but widespread improvement in proconservation behavioral intentions, but this did not persist after 6 months. Estimates from stochastic actor-oriented models suggested that the influences of social peers, rather than knowledge, were driving changes in intention and contributed to the failure to change behavioral intention in the long term, despite lasting changes in attitudes and perceived norms. Our results point to the importance of accounting for the interaction between networks and behavior when designing conservation interventions.
Conservationists can use social network analysis to improve targeting for behaviour-change interventions, selecting individuals to target who will go on to inform or influence others. However, collecting sociometric data is expensive. Using empirical data from a case study in Cambodia and simulations we examine the conditions under which collecting this data is cost-effective. Our results show that targeting interventions using sociometric data can lead to greater dissemination of information and adoption of new behaviours. However, these approaches are not cost-effective for small interventions implemented in only a few communities, and it is an order of magnitude cheaper to achieve the same results by simply targeting more individuals in each community at random. For interventions across multiple communities, network data from one community could inform rules-of-thumb that can be applied to boost the effectiveness of interventions. In rural Cambodia, this approach is worthwhile if it can inform interventions covering at least 21 villages. Our findings provide a framework for understanding how insights from network sciences, such as targeting clusters of individuals for interventions that aim to change behaviour, can make a practical contribution to conservation.
I have now officially completed my PhD! My thesis, completed under the wonderful supervision of Dr Aidan Keane (Edinburgh) and Prof E.J. Milner-Gulland (Oxford), was entitled ‘Improving environmental interventions by understanding social networks’. A full copy can be found HERE. Scroll down to read the abstract and a lay summary.
Consider some of the major factors causing deforestation or the extinction of wildlife; clearing of forests for agriculture, over-hunting of wildlife, or logging for wood. All these factors result from people’s actions. So, to conserve habitats and wildlife, we need to understand why people behave as they do. One of the most important influences on people’s behaviour is the behaviour of the people they communicate and interact with on a regular basis – their social networks. Understanding social networks – how and from whom people get information on different topics – can therefore help us to more effectively influence their behaviour, such as by working with influential ‘opinion leaders’ who are connected to many people. In this thesis, I explore how this might work in a conservation context.
I started by reviewing the published literature from other disciplines, such as public health and sociology, and considered the relevance of the approaches they use to conservation. Then, in the rest of the thesis I looked at the role of social networks in an intervention aiming to reduce wildlife poisoning in Cambodia. First, I used a variety of research methods to better understand wildlife poisoning. I found that some residents are poisoning wildlife for food, particularly young men, and some children. But most residents in the area are strongly against wildlife poisoning. To help local efforts against poisoning, I therefore worked with a local NGO, WCS Cambodia, to develop and test a strategy for promoting the use of a hotline for reporting poisoning in one village.
To look at how the village social network might affect the success of these efforts, I used a survey to gather information from everyone in the village about their social relations, enabling me to map the social network in the village. I then used surveys to measure residents’ behaviour and knowledge at three time points, before and after the intervention. I used dynamic network models to determine how these changes relate to the social network. WCS invited a group of 41 people to the promotion event, but I found that information from the event spread through the village, so at least 144 people had received some information after six months. Most of this spread occurred within households. After two weeks, people throughout the village reported being more likely to report poisoning. But this was not a result of them learning about the hotline. Instead, it seems they were influenced by their peers who attended the event. After six months, this peer influence also played a role in people reverting to their previous level of behaviour.
With information about the social network, WCS may be able to better spread information about the hotline, or target people who can persuade others to use it. I use computer simulations to see how information about the hotline, or intention to use the hotline, might spread through the network depending on who WCS targets to receive information. I find that targeting individuals that are highly connected in the network is much more effective than targeting people based on other characteristics, such as wealthy people or those in leadership positions. However, this increase in effectiveness is not large enough to justify the costs of collecting and analysing network data. It would be more cost-effective to target a greater number of randomly chosen people. If WCS are promoting the hotline in many villages, they might be able to analyse the social network of one village to identify some rules-of-thumb about what sorts of people are well connected, which they can then apply elsewhere. For example, perhaps wealthy households tend to be better connected. But I find that rules-of-thumb identified in other studies do not apply here and are probably quite context-specific.
Overall, this thesis highlights how important it is to take social networks into account when designing a behaviour-change strategy. We find that social relationships can help to spread information but can also reinforce existing behaviours and prevent behaviour change. Understanding the structure of a social network can suggest targeting strategies that could overcome this barrier, and interventions should try to use social influences wherever possible. For example, once some residents adopt a new behaviour, they can be a valuable resource for influencing others.
Interventions to conserve biodiversity often aim to change human behaviour. Social relations and interactions, or social networks, have a strong influence on the information people receive and on their behaviour. Thus, the interactions between social networks and behaviour have been the subject of intense research effort in countless domains, and practitioners in fields such as public health have developed a range of strategies which account for relational processes in their interventions. This thesis seeks to integrate these insights into conservation and explore their practical implications. I begin by synthesising the literature and discussing the relevance of social network interventions for conservation. The remainder of the thesis examines the role of social networks in a case study intervention aiming to reduce wildlife poisoning in Northern Cambodia. I first use a mixed-method approach to better understand wildlife poisoning. I find that it is widespread, occurring in eight of the ten villages studied, but generally low prevalence, and often carried out by young men or children. However, most residents hold negative attitudes towards poisoning. With the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia, I develop and pilot a social marketing intervention to promote the use of a hotline for reporting incidences of poisoning. I then use longitudinal data on behaviour and dynamic social network models to unpick the role of information flow and social influence in this intervention. I find that information from the intervention flowed widely through the village social networks, particularly within households, reaching an audience three-times larger than originally targeted. Having a knowledgeable household member doubled the probability that an individual would become knowledgeable. I also find that intention to report poisoning increases throughout the village in the short-term but returns to baseline levels in the long term. These changes are not driven by knowledge of the intervention. Instead, individuals are influenced by the intentions of network peers. One way to more effectively produce behavioural change that exploits these social influences is to target interventions at influential individuals identified using sociometric data. Using diffusion simulations, I explore the cost-effectiveness of these approaches within the study village. I find that network-informed targeting could result in uptake of the hotline more than double other targeting strategies, but that the relatively high cost of collecting network data makes it cost-ineffective. A more feasible strategy for large-scale interventions might be to conduct network research to identify general rules-of-thumb that can be used to select influential individuals. However, I find that rules-of-thumb identified in other contexts do not apply in Cambodia. Overall, my findings highlight the critical importance of social relations in shaping the outcomes of conservation interventions and illustrate some possible strategies for exploiting them in intervention.
Conservationists increasingly recognise the necessity of robust social research for achieving their objectives. As the sector has traditionally been dominated by biologists, significant work is required to build the capacity for social science in conservation. The Conservation Social Science consortium of NGOs and research institutions tasked myself, Harriett Ibbett (Bangor) and Trisha Gupta (Oxford) with conducting a gap analysis of available training resources. We compiled a database of resources, which will be made freely available in an searchable online format, and our gap analysis report will be used to prioritise investment in future resources to meet conservationist’s needs.
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a variety of unforeseen implications for people and wildlife. One early trend is a reported increase in waterhole poisonings in Cambodia’s Northern Plains. This is concerning for both conservation and human health reasons. Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia is home to the largest remaining fragments of Southeast Asia’s deciduous woodlands. These woodlands, which once carpeted mainland Southeast Asia, have disappeared elsewhere. As such, Cambodia’s Northern Plains are stronghold for some unique and threatened wildlife species. For example, the area is home to the Giant Ibis – Cambodia’s national bird, which was thought extinct until it was re-discovered in 1993. Unfortunately, three Giant Ibis (representing over 1% of the global population) have been poisoned in recent months. These poisonings can also harm farmers and their livestock, who depend on the waterholes as a critical water source.
So why might we be seeing this worrying spike in waterhole poisoning? Research conducted in 2017, by Emiel de Lange and two Cambodian students, Yim Vichet and Leang Chantheavy, may help to provide some answers. The study is available in the journal Oryx and a full text is available here.
The first documented carbofuran poisonings in Preah Vihear: a problem for people and wildlife
In 2016, in the heat of the dry season, cows in Preah Vihear province were dying seemingly without reason and farmers were complaining of diarrhoea and stomach pains. When government officials investigated they found troubling scenes: at five vital life-giving waterholes, strange purple gravel was strewn at their edges, and dead and dying animals were scattered nearby. A slender-billed vulture, one of less than 100 individuals left in Southeast Asia, was found struggling in the grass and rushed to a vet.
The bird did not survive. However, by examining the contents of its stomach in a laboratory, vets discovered that it had been poisoned by a pesticide called carbofuran. This was even more troubling, as carbofuran is extremely toxic to birds, and was banned internationally, under the Rotterdam convention, following a massacre of Europe’s farmland birds in 1998. Such poisonings not only represented a significant public health danger to farmers and their livestock; they also threatened the rare wildlife which depend on the waterholes for their survival.
At the time, conservationists could only speculate as to the causes for these events. Was it an accidental consequence of pesticide use in agriculture? Was it an intentional attack, perhaps intended to kill a cow in retaliation for a land dispute? Or a protest against conservation rules? To address this problem, we would first need to understand the root causes.
Understanding the root causes of waterhole poisonings
Emiel and his team interviewed local residents and organised group discussions in ten villages in the area, to get a broader sense of how people perceived poisoning, and to attempt to measure its prevalence. Given the sensitive nature of the behaviour, they used a mixed methods approach drawing on theory from social psychology, sensitive questioning techniques, and triangulating multiple data sources. Their conclusions have important implications for managing poisoning in Preah Vihear province, and for studying sensitive behaviours in other contexts.
1. The who, what, where, when, and why, of wildlife poisoning
“In the dry season, when the waterholes are dry, I put the poison in a coconut shell. It is a powder which I dissolve in the water and put in the shell […]. Using this poison, I used to catch a lot of birds, maybe five or six each time, and I would try three times in one season.”
This description is typical of practices documented in eight of the ten villages visited during the study. It is a method used to harvest wild meat, which is primarily consumed at home. It is considered extremely efficient, and easy to learn compared to methods such as setting traps or using guns. In the dry season, a lot of wildlife concentrates at waterholes which makes them easy targets. However, from a conservation perspective, this indiscriminate killing is concerning and witnesses reported that many important species have been affected. It is usually young men, perhaps up to the age of 30, who are using poisons, but we also heard about children playing with poisons and catching animals too. They might learn this from relatives in the village or from shopkeepers, who sometimes sell the poison repackaged in clear plastic bags for ~$0.25.
We might assume that the poorest households are using poison because of food insecurity, but the evidence for this was not clear in 2017. A more important factor in deciding whether to use poison or not seems to be how health risks are perceived. This is one of the key factors that may have changed following the outbreak of COVID-19, as migrant workers are forced to return home and no longer have employment opportunities.
2. Social norms and village reactions
“The villagers are all unhappy [about poisoning] […]. Last year I told everyone at a meeting to not do it and forbade the shopkeepers to sell the poison, […] but people continue to do it in secret.”
Social norms around wildlife poisoning are complex and differ from village to village. In one village, poisoning was a topic discussed freely and seemed to be quite common, while in others nobody had ever seen or heard about such a practice. Most villages lay somewhere in the middle: there were clearly groups of varying size who were using poison or who were accepting of it, while others disapproved strongly. In five villages, chiefs or other authority figures had attempted to prevent poisoning, because it destroys clean water sources and fish populations, risks people’s health, and has caused the deaths of beloved dogs, cows and chickens. They had made poisoners sign contracts promising to stop, or held village meetings to discuss the problem. One traditional doctor even suspected a young boy had been poisoned, but we couldn’t confirm this story. Many people also worry about the health effects of eating poisoned meat, and we recorded a long list of suspected symptoms. On the other hand, many believe that removing the internal organs of a poisoned animal makes the meat safe to eat.
3. The challenges of studying sensitive behaviour
“If people in the village knew this was happening, they would be unhappy as it could kill their cattle.”
Understandably, many people were reluctant to talk about poisoning. Many residents were unhappy about poisoning, and authorities have publicly acted against it in some villages. As such, those using poison may keep quiet about it to avoid social and legal repercussions. Some villages also benefit from conservation projects, such as community ecotourism businesses or organic farming projects, so village authorities may work closely with environment authorities to enforce conservation rules.
This situation raises challenges for researchers. Few people openly admitted to poisoning. Most accounts were indirect, or from those who had been negatively impacted by poisoning. Nevertheless, by carefully triangulating evidence from multiple sources, the study makes several robust qualitative conclusions, though trying to estimate prevalence of poison usage across the landscape has proved more difficult.
What does this mean for preventing waterhole poisoning in the future?
Despite the challenges of studying sensitive behaviours, the results of this study will be useful for planning interventions to reduce wildlife poisoning in the area. Local managers now understand the practices that lead to wildlife poisoning, the people involved, and their motivations. Importantly, the prevalence of this practice is now better understood, as well as the social norms and dynamics in each village, and previous efforts by local authorities to combat poisoning. All of this knowledge allows us to:
Prioritise villages for intervention
Identify target groups and plan how to reach them
Identify potential allies to collaborate with, or use as key messengers
Understand what sort of information might influence poisoners’ decision-making.
Finally, whether or not the recently observed increase in poisonings follows the trends described in this study remains to be seen. However, early evidence suggests that greater quantities of poison are being used than before. This might indicate that new actors with greater access to capital and commercial motivations are engaging in poisoning. A key component of our interventions to date has been to engage local communities in monitoring and reporting poisoning using a hotline, and this will continue to be critical for addressing this new challenge. High profile media coverage may also assist in encouraging greater control of trade in these deadly pesticides.
Two-thirds of journals, together publishing nearly half of all articles, complied with only two or fewer FOA principles. Only twenty journals (5%), publishing 485 articles per year (<1%), complied with all five principles. We uncovered a weak negative correlation between journal impact factor and the number of FOA principles fulfilled.
Lastly, we found that Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Springer represented 48% of all journals, but 80% of the 25 journals with the highest impact factor. Our results show that conservation science journals largely fail to meet the FOA standards. Conservation researchers are likely to face obstacles such as limited access to published literature, high publishing charges, and lack of ownership of their research outputs.
In 2018, I was privileged to participate in the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network – a biennial workshop organised and run by early career researchers. My colleagues Stephanie Brittain and Harriet Ibbett facilitated an excellent discussion on the ethical challenges faced by early career researchers in conservation science. All social research has ethical challenges, but conservation is particularly fraught given it’s colonial history and the huge areas of contested land that conservation aims to manage. I found this to be a therapeutic venue to discuss ethical dilemnas I have encountered in the field, and I’m very proud of the paper we subsequently published in Conservation Biology.
Social science is becoming increasingly important in conservation, with more studies involving methodologies that collect data from and about people. Conservation science is a normative and applied discipline designed to support and inform management and practice. Poor research practice risks harming participants, researchers, and can leave negative legacies. Often, those at the forefront of field‐based research are early‐career researchers, many of whom enter their first research experience ill‐prepared for the ethical conundrums they may face. Here, we draw on our own experiences as early‐career researchers to illuminate how ethical challenges arise during conservation research that involves human participants. Specifically, we discuss ethical review procedures, conflicts of values, and power relations, and provide broad recommendations on how to navigate ethical challenges when they arise during research. We encourage greater engagement with ethical review processes and highlight the pressing need to develop ethical guidelines for conservation research that involves human participants.
As a National Geographic explorer (2018) I was priviliged to participate in a Sciencetelling bootcamp this week. I was put up in a nice hotel with many other young explorers, all passionate people working on fascinating projects, and we received training in media, communications, and public speaking. At the end of the week, we had the chance to showcase our work in a public presentation at an Explorer Spotlight, hosted at a local university. Here is the result: