Conservation leadership in the time of covid-19

14th October 2020

A reflection by Dr Chris Sandbrook and Dr Howard P Nelson

It has been a year unlike any other previously experienced, as covid-19 has swept around the planet. While most attention has been understandably focused on dealing with the immediate public health crisis, the pandemic has also had profound effects on efforts to tackle the longer term environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Carbon emissions have fallen, at least temporarily, and in many places non-human life has enjoyed a respite from anthropogenic pollution and disturbance.

However, a depressing picture is emerging of multiple covid-related threats to biodiversity, including reduced environmental protections, increases in wildlife harvesting for subsistence and income, and direct persecution of species blamed for the pandemic. Meanwhile, the conservation sector is facing a funding crisis as income from nature-based tourism and philanthropic donations dries up. These challenges are placing tremendous burdens on people and organisations within the conservation sector. Responding effectively requires, among other things, conservation leaders who are strong and resilient individuals with the ability to lead change in organisations and wider socio-ecological systems. The Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, delivered by the CCI partnership, is ideally placed to respond to this challenge.

Established in 2010, the Masters has now trained 179 mid-career professionals from 80 different countries in applied leadership and management skills. Alumni are working for governments, charities and the private sector from Bhutan to Brazil, Ghana to Guyana. Many have faced an incredibly difficult year as their organisations have laid off staff, projects have collapsed and ecosystems have suffered. The Masters team has been working closely with them to offer support including setting up regional zoom calls for alumni, running a survey to identify particular impacts and needs, and organising an online panel debate featuring leading academic thinkers.

The aim in all of this work has been to support alumni through the current crisis, while also encouraging them to think about how it might present a moment when significant change is possible. Demonstrating their leadership, a group of alumni has written an editorial for the international journal Oryx (a publication of CCI partner Fauna & Flora International) entitled “A call for collective crisis leadership”, which has been signed by 118 course graduates. An alumni group has also made collective submissions to the negotiation process for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity post 2020 framework.

Closer to home, our current students have also been affected by covid-19. The 2019- 20 cohort spent this past summer working virtually on their professional placements with CCI conservation organisations. The topics of the projects ranged from blue carbon to wildlife trade to fashion supply chains, and covered regions from the Antarctic to South Asia and central Europe. This crucial element of the programme is overseen by newly appointed Lecturer in Conservation Leadership Dr Howard P. Nelson, a Caribbean wildlife biologist with a diversity of leadership experience in that region.  Based at Fauna & Flora International, Howard’s appointment reaffirms the unique integrated approach to delivering the Masters in partnership with conservation organisations.

Looking to the future, the course team is finalising a strategy for the next ten years. The Cambridge-based Masters will continue to be the main focus, but the positive experience of connecting remotely with alumni during the pandemic has led to a stronger role for online learning in future plans. We are excited to see the Masters programme grow in scale and ambition as it enters its second decade.