Public support is an integral component of any conservation project, even if it is the most difficult to achieve. Usually, decisions based on scientific research will find both support and resistance. For example, the often-seen “save nature” slogan might inspire people in cities, even while those who live right next to wild places make clear their own opinions. For example, might not local people benefit if Amur tigers, or Amur leopards, or bears pass away? One might argue that people could then hike without fear, or no longer worry about the safety of their children and household. So how does one find a balance between the public and the wild?
This very question was tackled in a 5-day workshop entitled “Human dimension in wildlife: stakeholder engagement.” The course was held at The Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Sikhote-Alin research center in the town of Terney, Primorsky Krai. Cornell University associate professor Dr. Heidi Kretser, who has worked for WCS for over 20 years, led the course, introducing a topic relatively new to Russian science.
The seminar was attended by representatives from the Sikhote-Alin, Komandorsky, and Kronotsky Zapovedniks, residents from Terney, and U.S. citizens from Montana and Illinois. Each participant sought to address similar problems rooted in a lack of understanding and opposition among the public against conservation work.
In order to better understand conservation problems, Dr. Kretser introduced the participants to a new, systematic approach. One of the key tools she introduced was conceptual modeling, which can help managers identify all possible threats that have created the issue, and consider all the possible stakeholders involved. Dr. Kretser also provided examples from sociological research that are pertinent to conservation.
Throughout the seminar, participants discussed the best ways to involve local people in their conservation projects. To do this, it is necessary to communicate correctly with the public, using tools such as conservation marketing. “Reaching a level of partnership with the public is a difficult task, often taking more time than you might think. Sometimes, things seem to come to a dead-end. Here managers need to pause and complete such tasks as people can agree on (for example, creating a public parking lot in town). This constructs points of collaboration that will benefit all stakeholders involved,” explained Dr. Kretser.
According to another invited expert, Dr. Michael Yablokov, the root of this problem lies in language itself. He described how, “When we say ‘work with locals,’ we imply a one-sided relationship between us and an inanimate object. The situation fundamentally changes when we begin to communicate with people, instead of working with them: to varying degrees, each side influences the other. This is the essence of cooperation.”
To support his argument, Mr. Yablokov shared his own experiences organizing effective collaboration between locals and the Polistovsky Zapovednik. As director, he has succeeded not only in resolving conflicts between the Zapovednik and residents, but also in establishing ecological tourism at the Zapovednik.
On the last day, participants presented on how they had begun to apply their new skills in conservation sociology to their own issues. Upon completion, they also received certificates confirming their training in conservation sociology. Now there are 9 more professionals in Russia who can apply a scientific approach to effectively involve the public in conservation.
According to the participants, the seminar was very helpful and productive. “[At work] we collaborate with the public, so the topic of this seminar was very relevant. It’s great that we can apply these tools to our work. I would like to continue discussing these issues linked with tourism development.”
After the seminar, Dr. Krester gave a “sticky tarp” to the local conservation club Uragus, led by Galina Maksimova. This large, sticky cloth is hung on the wall and allows managers to place notes with labels to build their conceptual model – a useful way to visualize stakeholders and their interrelationships.
We would especially like to thank Ulyana Lebok, public relation specialist of Komandorsky Zapovednik, for her help in preparing this material.