The human side of conservation: an interview with Dr Philip Dearden

Dr Philip Dearden has worked in Africa for 10 years and still doesn’t call himself an African expert. But as Leader of the Marine Protected Areas Working Group for Canada’s Ocean Management Research Network, co-author of Parks and Protected Areas in Canada: Planning and Management, and with more than 25 years’ experience working in Southeast Asia, he is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading minds in conservation. Here the University of Victoria Professor shares his passion for marine protected areas, community-based conservation and ecotourism.


What inspired you to get into conservation?

I always wanted to be outdoors. Although I loved biology, I just didn’t like being in the lab all the time. Geography offered that outdoor perspective and biogeography was a perfect marriage for me.

My master’s degree looked at the distribution of plant communities on different soil types. My PhD mentor said to me, ‘Did you enjoy doing your master’s?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, immensely.’ And he said ‘Do you think it helped the world at all?’ I said, ‘Well, no!’

He introduced me to the idea that we should be looking at the most critical problems and how we can help with our skills. So I started applying my biogeographical and ecological skills to conservation.

Why is it so important to work with communities for conservation?

That same mentor got it through my thick skull that resource management is not about managing resources, but about understanding people and how to manage people’s actions.

We had to do 15 courses for a PhD so I did every course around campus, including things like questionnaire survey design. Why do I need to do questionnaire survey design as a biogeographer? But some of those human social courses became the most important courses I ever did. I was intrigued by how we use science for social questions.

2 - Dearden India fieldwork - credit Crystal Tremblay

Crystal Tremblay.

Why did you choose to focus on the marine environment?

Since 30 or 40 years ago I did a lot of sailing, diving and fishing, so had a lot of familiarly with the marine environment. In the mid-1990s, when I was heavily engaged in Southeast Asia, I began to realise the rate of degradation that was taking place in the oceans I was diving in. Almost year by year I could see them getting poorer and poorer – and very little awareness of that.

Id go to IUCN conferences, and there would be three of us in the room for the marine meetings. I realised that marine was very understudied and I thought that was where our major challenge is.

What makes ecotourism an exciting area for conservation?

It’s exciting because potentially it’s such a positive thing to do. We all work on so many problems where everything is negative and it gives you a chance to say, what is the best possible thing we could do here and how do we do it?

For ecotourism, it’s going to a situation where you can transform economies from destructive and consumptive to less so. It gives you an intellectual opportunity to do what you think is right, but also an opportunity to apply it and see if you can make a difference.

Your work spans many different countries worldwide. Why is that perspective important?

Learning from other places, especially in ecotourism and marine protected area application, is something we don’t do. We don’t learn in Southeast Asia from what’s happened in the Caribbean and we don’t learn in the Caribbean from what’s happened in the South Pacific. I’ve tried to specialise in one region but I think it’s important to learn from other regions.

What are you most proud of achieving in your career so far?

Before I wrote my textbook on park management for Canada and my introductory environmental text there were no Canadian textbooks in those fields. I am proud of having produced books that are used by Canadian students about Canada.

And my grad students; I love to work with all of them, to see the positions they go into and the knowledge they gain.

What advice would you give to aspiring conservationists?

Do your best. Grades aren’t everything but getting a good grade does help open up more doors. And try to get the right experiences. Some of the grad students I have applying to me have worked in many different situations with different organisations and have different language skills.

Today young professional students are very good at networking, but face-to-face contact is irreplaceable – so networking, conferences and congresses are really important.

Where do you think young conservationists are needed most?

At the 2014 World Parks Congress there were 6000 people, 8 themes and maybe 20 sessions in each theme. But I saw bewildered people walking around with the look of harried superintendents – the same people who are at the forward edge of protected area management in the world.

All the talks and presentations were such at a high level and nobody was asking, ‘How do you calculate carrying capacity?’ We tend to go off into the stratosphere and it concerns me that our feet are not touching the ground anymore.

We need detailed work in context-specific places and understanding what management approach works and doesn’t work in those places. We still have a long way to go in marine in understanding the biophysical systems we’re dealing with and management characteristics. And we’ve got to get back to seeing governance as a means towards more effective conservation, rather than a goal in itself.

Are there specific skills that young conservationists need?

I think it’s good to have a specific skill that you can fall back on. I like to think there’s something called a protected areas scientistsomebody who understands the whole gamut of protected areas from ecological systems through social and legal systems and can tackle them together.

It’s becoming dominated by specialists who don’t do that. The governance people stay in the governance stream and the biogeographers stay in the biogeography stream. I think creating connections, working in teams and working together is the main challenge.

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Is there a field experience that stands out for you?

I worked as an advisor to the wildlife department in Sri Lanka for six years. I got an assignment from the World Bank to survey the east coast of the island during the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. There was a lull in the fighting and they gave me a UN jeep, a helmet and body armour and sent me off. I met with the Tigers several times and they were not the slightest bit interested in killing or kidnapping me; all they wanted to do was talk about how they were going to relieve poverty.

Towards the end of my trip, we were going to a water hole in Yala National Park. My driver stopped at one side and I got out and walked around the water hole. After about 20 minutes I got to the other side and behind a bank stood up this big bull elephant.

He must have been about 20 feet from me, just enormous, and he was walking towards me. He backed me all the way around that pond, just a slow walk, looking at me and I was just looking at him. At any moment he could have killed me – boomph – there was nothing I could do. And he just walked me back to the jeep and then lumbered off into the forest.

I sweated, I had nightmares, but it was just remarkable – all the communication that was occurring between us. It’s a very humbling experience to be totally at the mercy of another animal for such a time.

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