Fighting extinction: should we make battle plans or not?

An estimated 150-200 species go extinct every 24 hours. Making plans to save them seems like a good idea, but no-one can tell us for sure.

In the midst of the sixth mass extinction event we are becoming adept at assessing the risk of accidentally extinguishing species as we go about our daily business. By the close of 2017 we had formally assessed the extinction risk of more than 90,000 species finding more than 25,000 to be under threat.

Nations have an obligation to protect species and they do so in a number of ways: setting aside nature reserves; enacting and enforcing protective laws; promoting environmentally-friendly practice, and helping communities become effective stewards of their wildlife. If they were applied well, these measures would keep most species off the threatened list. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, many species need us to take more direct and more urgent action.

“You’ll never plough a field just by turning it over in your mind” – Irish Proverb

Before working in conservation I’d imagined that knowing why a species is threatened, and doing something about it, were similar things. In reality the gap between knowing and doing is large (Knight et al. 2008). We will need to bridge this gap for there to be better outcomes for threatened species.  The discipline of species conservation planning can provide a valuable transition between the clean and tidy zone of objective, transparent risk assessment and the murky, swampy area in which people attempt action with incomplete information and (often) inadequate resources.

Assessing – planning – acting – is a cycle

Planning in the right way, with the right tools, can give us the space to think aspirationally about what it means to save a species (Redford et al., 2011). It helps us to turn these aspirations into clear goals, to understand the challenges to achieving those goals, and to identify, evaluate and decide the most appropriate strategies with which to attack them. Planning requires us to think about who will take on the work, how they will be supported, and how progress will be tracked and evaluated.

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Photo: Planning for Western Ground Parrots, Australia

Many have found this to be useful work, citing moving examples of improved trajectories for species post-planning. Others remain skeptical. Published reviews of the extent to which species-focused planning has contributed to conservation success are rare, despite the thousands of plans written worldwide. By those who have attempted it, objectively demonstrating the effectiveness of species-focused plans has been described as everything from not easy (Gimenez-Dixon and Stuart, 1993), to impossible (Fuller et al., 2003). Further, while some multi-plan reviews conclude success (e.g. Schultz & Gerber 2002; Taylor et al., 2005), in others apparent success disappears once biases are accounted for (e.g. Bottrill et al. 2009).  Despite this ambiguity, species conservation donors increasingly require evidence of clear and comprehensive species conservation plans before committing to fund action.


Hard data on the value of formal planning and on the comparative value of different planning approaches, would provide clearer direction and support to those struggling to move more species from assessment to action.

My research

For the past 30 years, the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group has been working with partners to convene large, science-based, stakeholder-inclusive planning workshops around the world, for threatened species. I am interested in mining the information collected by the organisation over this time, to see what light it can shed on this complex topic.

Caroline Lees is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs and Anna Santure, from the University of Auckland,

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