New research shows that conservation initiatives often spread like disease, helping scientists and policymakers to better design successful programs that are more likely to be adopted.

In a study published today, researchers modelled how conservation initiatives are implemented across regions and countries until they reach ‘scale’—a level where they can have real impact on conserving or improving biodiversity.

Co-author Dr Rebecca Weeks from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University says that by understanding how initiatives reach scale, conservation efforts can go further. 

“There has been a lot of research on threats to biodiversity, measuring the speed and patterns of biodiversity loss, and what that means for the environment and society,” Dr Weeks said. “However, relatively little research has investigated the uptake of different conservation projects and policies.”

Lead author Dr Morena Mills, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, says conservation initiatives—like managing fishing resources and offsetting land for nature—are critical for protecting biodiversity and the valuable ecosystems that provide clean water and air.

“We found that most of these initiatives spread like a disease, where they depend on a potential adopter catching the conservation ‘bug’ from an existing one,” Dr Mills said.

The study looked at how 22 conservation initiatives across the globe spread, and how fast.

Location of the area-based biodiversity conservation initiatives analysed

The initiatives covered land and water, low to high-income countries, and local, national and international scales. For example, the initiatives ranged from villages introducing protections around local marine sites to governments designating areas as international World Heritage Sites, including state and privately protected areas.

The team found that most (83 percent) of the schemes followed a slow-fast-slow model, where initial adoption is slow as few people take it up, but then grows quickly as more early adopters connect with potential adopters. Finally, the rate slows again as all potential adopters have either taken up the scheme or refused it.

“We are seeking to understand more about how local context facilitates or hinders spread, so initiatives that benefit both nature and people can reach scale,” Dr Mills said.

Dr Weeks added: “Further insights into how conservation initiatives spread will allow practitioners to better design and promote conservation initiatives to maximise their uptake, which is critical for making a tangible, lasting impact.”

Mills, M., Bode, M., Mascia, M. B., Weeks, R., Gelcich, S., Dudley, N., et al. (2019). How conservation initiatives go to scale. Nature Sustainability, 1–6.

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