Communicating the Biodiversity Crisis: From “Warnings” to Positive Engagement

The role of communications in wider transformational change. Given the complex and long-term nature of the biodiversity crisis, there are numerous psychological risks that can lead to avoidance (1), disengagement (2), or fatigue (3), all of which reduce pro-environmental action. Different kinds of messaging or experiences are likely to be important for the individual at each stage. Experiences of efficacy can help individuals begin to act, while experiences of positive emotions such as social validation, and the “warm glow” of acting in alignment with intrinsic values, are vital to maintaining long-term engagement.

de Lange E, Sharkey W, Castelló y Tickell S, Migné J, Underhill R, Milner-Gulland EJ. Communicating the Biodiversity Crisis: From “Warnings” to Positive Engagement. Tropical Conservation Science. 2022;15. doi:10.1177/19400829221134893

A policy brief based on this paper is available here.


Background: Effective communication can play a vital role in societal transformations towards sustainability and biodiversity restoration. However, the complexity and long-term nature of environmental change presents a communication challenge. If not carefully navigated, messages around environmental degradation can lead to audience disengagement and issue fatigue, at a time when motivation, engagement and positive action is required. Methods: In this Conservation in Action piece, we describe the principles of positive communication, which are being adopted by a growing movement of conservation organizations. We support this approach by reviewing evidence on the role of emotions in decision-making from diverse fields such as psychology and communications, paying particularly close attention to the experiences of climate change communicators. Results: Positive emotional experiences, including feelings of hope, collective efficacy, and the warm glow that follows actions aligned with intrinsic values, can play an essential role in sustaining actions that contribute to transformative change. While negative emotions prime specific action tendencies, positive emotions enable creativity, cooperation, and resilience, which are all essential for overcoming the challenging nature of acting on the biodiversity crisis. Conclusions: Communications from conservation researchers and practitioners need to reflect the reality of the biodiversity crisis. While some communications may seek to motivate action through warnings and threats, messages that trigger positive emotions in audiences can help inspire long-term engagement and action. We suggest that this positive communication approach is underutilized. Implications: We present a guide to help those working in conservation convey their messages in ways that are empowering and positive. As the biodiversity crisis intensifies, it is critical that conservation professionals continue to imagine and develop pathways to a better future and communicate with others in society in a way that supports transformative change towards this future.

Balancing making a difference with making a living in the conservation sector

Estimated associations between conservationist satisfaction with goal progress and explanatory variables among 2336 survey respondents (points, mean of the posterior distribution on the log-odds scale; bars, 95% credibility intervals; cross-cutting, encompassing terrestrial and marine biomes). Dispositional optimism, years in conservation, and work hours are scaled and centered. Thresholds, goal name, and response categories corresponding to missing data are not shown

Pienkowski, T., Keane, A., Castelló y Tickell, S., Hazenbosch, M., Arlidge, W. N. S., Baranyi, G., Brittain, S., de Lange, E., Khanyari, M., Papworth, S., & Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2022). Balancing making a difference with making a living in the conservation sector. Conservation Biology. 36, e13846.


Goals play important roles in people’s lives because they focus attention, mobilize effort, and sustain motivation. Understanding conservationists’ satisfaction with goal progress may provide insights into real-world environmental trends and flag risks to their well-being and motivation. We asked 2694 conservationists working globally how satisfied they were with progress toward goals important to them. We then explored how this satisfaction varied among groups, including demographic and occupational. Finally, we looked at respondents’ experiences associated with goal-progress satisfaction. Many (94.0%) indicated that making a meaningful contribution to conservation was an important goal for them, and over half were satisfied or very satisfied in this area (52.5%). However, respondents were generally dissatisfied with progress on collective conservation goals (e.g., stopping species loss). Some groups were more likely to report dissatisfaction than others. For instance, those in conservation for longer tended to be less satisfied with collective goal progress (log odds –0.21, 95% credibility interval [CI] –0.32 to –0.10), but practitioners reported greater satisfaction (log odds 0.38, 95% CI 0.15–0.60). Likewise, those who were more optimistic in life (log odds 0.24, 95% CI 0.17–0.32), male (log odds 0.25, 95% CI 0.10–0.41), and working in conservation practice (log odds 0.25, 95% CI 0.08–0.43) reported greater satisfaction with individual goal progress. Free-text responses suggested widespread dissatisfaction with livelihood goals, particularly related to job security and adequate compensation. Although contributing to conservation appeared to be a source of satisfaction, slow goal progress in other areas––particularly around making a living––looked to be a source of distress and demotivation. Employers, funders, professional societies, and others should consider ways to help those in the sector make a difference while making a satisfactory living by, for example, prioritizing conservationists′ well-being when allocating funding. This support could include avoiding exploitative practices, fostering supportive work environments, and celebrating positive outcomes.

Personal traits predict conservationists’ optimism about outcomes for nature

Details are in the caption following the image
Figure 2: Expectations about conservation outcomes in the next 10 years. The perceived likelihood that 10 nationally focused conservation outcomes indicative of the five Strategic Goals (A–E) of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets (SO-1 to SO-10), and locally focused goals (SO-11), will be met by 2030 (CBD, 2010). Respondents were asked to think about the country whose conservation context they were most familiar with when evaluating the 10 nationally focused outcomes. Respondents were asked to think about the specific conservation area or context they were most familiar with when evaluating the locally focused goals

In the face of unprecedented biodiversity loss, the belief that conservation goals can be met could play an important role in ensuring they are fulfilled. We asked conservationists how optimistic they felt about key biodiversity outcomes over the next 10 years; 2341 people familiar with conservation in 144 countries responded. Respondents expressed optimism that enabling conditions for conservation would improve but felt pressures would continue, and the state of biodiversity was unlikely to get better. Respondents with greater general optimism about life, at early-career stages, and working in practice and policy (compared to academia) reported higher conservation optimism. But most of our biodiversity and conservation status indicators were not associated with conservation optimism. Unbounded optimism without appropriate action would be misguided in the face of growing threats to biodiversity. However, supporting those struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel could help sustain efforts to overcome these threats.

Pienkowski, T., Keane, A., de Lange, E., Khanyari, M., Arlidge, W. N. S., Baranyi, G., Brittain, S., Castelló y Tickell, S., Hazenbosch, M., Papworth, S., & Milner-Gulland, E. J.Personal traits predict conservationists’ optimism about outcomes for nature. Conservation Letters. 2022; 00 e12873.

ICCB 2021: Innovations in behavioral science for conservation

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.

Seminar at University of Santo Tomas, Philippines

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

Effects of social networks on interventions to change conservation behavior

Relative to a campaign to promote a hotline for reporting wildlife poisoning in a Cambodian village, (left) the social processes, such as peer influence and exchange of information, and (right) the cognitive mechanisms through which individual intentions changed, based on the theory of planned behavior (dashed arrows, hypothesized relationships between variables not supported by the data; solid arrows, relations observed in the data; small black circles, changes in variable states 2 weeks [left] and 6 months [right] after the intervention; white circles, unchanged variables 2 weeks [left] and 6 months [right] after the intervention). The hypothesized mechanisms are intervention participants become more knowledgeable about reporting of poisoning (H1); intervention participants change their beliefs and intentions (H2); other villagers also become knowledgeable about the intervention (H3); other villagers gain knowledge about the intervention through their social networks (H4); other villagers also change their beliefs and intentions (H5); changes in intention throughout the village are due to increased knowledge (H6); changes in intention and beliefs throughout the village are due to peer influences (H7); and peer influences occur by changing perceived norms (H8)

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.

Combining simulation and empirical data to explore the scope for social network interventions in conservation

Performance of different targeting strategies at diffusing an innovation, based on simulations using the measured social network. Each strategy is simulated at four levels of effort (2, 10, 20, & 30 targeted individuals) except for ‘conservation’ and ‘leaders’ which are not simulated at n=30, because not enough of these people existed within the network. Performance is measured as the area under the diffusion curve (AUC) as percentage of the maximum possible diffusion at time t=20. Bootstrapped 95% confidence intervals are shown. The shaded area is the 95% confidence interval range for simulations on 30 randomly generated sets of targets, acting as a null comparator. If the line falls within the shaded area, its performance is within the bounds of random targeting. Colours indicate the threshold of diffusion: blue for complex contagions such as conservation behaviours, and red for simple contagions such as information. On the left are results when the communication probability (i.e., the probability of communication between two connected individuals) is low (0.2), and on the right it is high (0.8). See Table 2 for explanations of the strategies.

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.

PhD thesis: Improving environmental interventions by understanding social networks

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.

Cover page of my thesis

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.

A Gap Analysis of training resources for Conservation Social Science

A matrix showing identified gaps in available social science training resources. See the full report, here.

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.