Morally contested conservation: EVIDENCE TO INFORM POLICY A RESEARCH PROJECT | AUGUST 2021 — July 2024


Wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa is morally contested.

Who should get to decide what is best for sub-Saharan African wildlife and the people who live alongside it? Who is conservation in sub-Saharan Africa for, and what does successful conservation look like? Protecting animals, developing rural economies, conserving biodiversity, or reducing conflict between people and dangerous animals?

Competing answers to these questions illuminate stark differences between local and external worldviews, which can appear virtually irreconcilable. Powerful external voices typically dominate debates and influence conservation and development policies, often amplifying historical inequalities and disempowering sub-Saharan African people who bear the costs of living alongside dangerous species.

But when local and external interests conflict, whose interests should take priority? How much harm should rural Africans bear in protecting wild animals and their habitats? Are local people part of the problem or part of the solution? Is it acceptable to remove people from their land to create space for wildlife? Which are more important, the rights of local people or the rights of individual animals?

How local, national, regional and international decision-makers answer these questions will determine the future for wildlife in sub-Saharan Africa and the lives of millions of people in the region.

There is an urgent need to systematically measure and compare moral beliefs and policy preferences among multiple groups, crucially including rural Africans, to better inform conservation and development policies in sub-Saharan Africa and internationally.

Between August 2021 and July 2024, we will collect data on moral attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences regarding critical issues in conservation and development, and identify key points of divergence and convergence between rural and urban communities in several African countries and internationally. We will publish our findings in peer-reviewed academic journals and clearly communicate them directly to the people whose decisions will influence the future of conservation in sub-Saharan Africa.

What DO we do?

We combine on-the-ground fieldwork with large online studies to measure attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences of people living in sub-Saharan Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

This approach allows us to chart the contours of moral divisions over conservation in sub-Saharan Africa and identify the factors that influence how people think about fiercely morally contested issues. It permits us to make powerful comparisons between groups, for example whether wider divisions exist between people who live in sub-Saharan Africa and those who live in the United Kingdom and United States, or between rural people and urban people regardless of where they live.

Our project steering group comprises academics, representatives from civil society organisations, and local community leaders who represent communities to ensure our project serves communities’ interests. This steering group helps us identify key morally contested issues affecting people in sub-Saharan Africa, where there appear to be major rifts between local and external moral worldviews.

We are interested in a range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • zoonotic disease risks associated with wildlife use, consumption, and trade
  • competing pressures on rural land use
  • hunting, including trophy hunting
  • retaliatory or preventative killing of animals due to conflict with people
  • militarised conservation
  • excluding people from protected areas
  • equitable distribution of benefits from wildlife tourism
  • achieving economic development alongside wildlife conservation
  • impacts on local people of conservation technologies such as drones and satellites
  • sustainable use of wildlife
  • community-based natural resource management

We are recruiting four graduate students through a competitive process open to all students currently enrolled in graduate programmes at universities in sub-Saharan Africa. Guided by our steering group, we will mentor these graduate along with advisors in their home universities. Students will have flexibility to design and pursue their own complementary research projects on morally contested conservation, using methods of their own choosing, while contributing to core project activities.

why is this research important?

This project will:

  • Systematically measure and clearly elucidate moral beliefs and policy preferences regarding key contested issues affecting rural lives and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, tackling tensions between local and external values head-on
  • Directly compare local people’s beliefs and preferences to those of people living in large urban centres in sub-Saharan Africa as well as people from the UK and the US, and precisely identify areas of divergence and convergence
  • Translate results into clear, robust, evidence-based recommendations for national, regional, and international decision-makers working in governments and NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America, as well as intergovernmental organisations such as UNEP, UNDP, UNHRC, World Bank, and the African Development Bank
  • Infuse local voices into the international scientific and policy discourses by publishing results in in high-profile scientific journals, and simultaneously communicating results and recommendations in pointed, plain-language perspective articles in popular media outputs, as well as policy briefs for key decision makers
  • Train a cohort of four excellent young scientists from the region who, by working together during this project and beyond, will develop the scientific expertise and cross-sectoral network of collaborators required advance the science and practice of wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa

Tangible outputs

  • Evidence-based policy briefs with clear recommendations for practical application of results delivered, directly to decision makers working in national governments, NGOs, and international organisations whose policies and projects have the capacity to influence outcomes for people living in rural sub-Saharan Africa
  • Plain-language written reports and accompanying audio and video (in English and local languages) for communities who participated in field research
  • Student-led, peer-reviewed scientific articles, driving informed debate on views about conservation in sub-Saharan Africa among local and external people (published in open-access journals)
  • Student-led presentations or special sessions in high-profile international policy and science forums such as World Conservation Congress, Society for Conservation Biology, and the Business of Conservation Conference

Evidence to Inform Policy: PATHWAYS TO REAL-WORLD CHANGE

This project will:

  • Infuse scientific discourse with evidence on rural sub-Saharan African people’s attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences, and how these compare to those of external people, coalesced around key issues identified by people from the region
  • Amplify local people’s perspectives in international debates and policy processes that materially affect their rights and livelihoods
  • Organically build capacity by equipping four students from sub-Saharan Africa with scientific and policy expertise through close mentorship and dedicated training, helping them become emerging leaders in scientific and policy dimensions of morally contested conservation
  • Establish enduring research partnerships between universities in the UK, US, and sub-Saharan Africa, and civil society organisations working to build and enhance capacity and representation in the region
  • Enable meaningful exchange of ideas and experiences between the UK, US, and sub-Saharan Africa—for example student exchanges and practically focused workshops led by thought leaders from the region

lead researchers

Dr Darragh Hare is a research fellow in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and a researcher in the Center for Conservation Social Sciences, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at Cornell University in the United States. He studies moral conflicts over wildlife conservation internationally and works with conservation professionals across sectors to design socially and ecologically responsible approaches to wildlife governance. Darragh has extensive experience of national and international environmental policy, governance, and politics. Before becoming an academic, he worked for nine years in public policy and directed knowledge exchange projects that brought together research producers (e.g. academics) and research users (e.g. civil servants, business leaders, NGOs, communities) to co-produce evidence-based solutions to real-world problems.

Dr Amy Dickman is the Kaplan Senior Research Fellow in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in the United Kingdom and Director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. She studies human-wildlife coexistence in Africa, and has over 20 years of field experience in community conservation across Southern and Eastern Africa. Amy is an expert in science communication and frequently contributes to international press and media on the topics of conservation, development, sustainable use and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa. She works with policymakers at all levels, and has presented on these topics to UK Government representatives, African Government representatives, the United Nations, and in many other international forums. She is an award-winning conservationist, an experienced supervisor, has published more than 70 peer reviewed articles on conservation, and is a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, the IUCN Task Force on Human-Wildlife Conflict, the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and several other international conservation advisory bodies.

Dr Shorna Allred is an associate professor at Cornell University in the Center for Conservation Social Sciences, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. Shorna’s research and outreach work focus on understanding human attitudes, motivations, and behaviour related to natural resource conservation and management. Her main interests centre on how social science can facilitate community-based approaches to planning and management while enhancing community resilience and sustainability. Shorna is passionate about engaging students in community-based work and leads a global service learning program, Global Citizenship and Sustainability, that is focused on indigenous community resilience. She works in Southeast Asia in Malaysian Borneo and recently spent a sabbatical investigating flood resilience in Bangkok, Thailand. Her teaching focuses on community-based research methods in natural resources, global service-learning, environmental justice, and community organizing for the public good. Shorna is a member of the New York board of the Nature Conservancy and in 2018 received Cornell University’s Engaged Scholar Prize.

Darragh Hare, Amy Dickman (credit Pat Erickson), and Shorna Allred (credit Lindsay France)


Dr. Dominik Bauer, WWF Germany

Craig Bruce, Jamma International

Max Gomera, United Nations Development Programme

John Kamanga, South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO)

Dr. Moreangels Mbizah, Wildlife Conservation Action

Dr. Sue Snyman, African Leadership University


This research project is generously supported by Jamma International, WWF Germany, and the Brettschneider Oxford Exchange Fund at Cornell University.

Photo credits: The Ruaha Carnivore Project