Introducing a common taxonomy to support learning from failure in conservation

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  • Dickson 2022 post print

    Accepted author manuscript, 366 KB, PDF document

    Embargo ends: 13/06/23

    Licence: CC BY-NC Show licence


  • Iain Dickson
    BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK
  • Stuart H. M. Butchart
    BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK
  • Allison Catalano
    Imperial College London
  • David Gibbons
    RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
  • Julia P. G. Jones
  • Katie Lee-Brooks
    Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge
  • Thomasina Oldfield
    TRAFFIC International, Cambridge
  • David Noble
    The British Trust for Ornithology
  • Stuart Paterson
    Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge
  • Sugoto Roy
    IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • Julien Semelin
    MAVA Foundation
  • Paul Tinsley-Marshall
    Kent Wildlife Trust
  • Rosie Trevelyan
    Tropical Biology Association, Cambridge
  • Hannah Wauchope
    University of Exeter
  • Sylvia Wicander
    United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge
  • William J. Sutherland
    University of Cambridge
Abstract Conservation practitioners are increasingly interested in the lessons gained through failure. While other sectors have made significant progress in learning from failure, there is currently limited consensus on how a similar transition could best be achieved in conservation, and what is required to facilitate this. One of the key enabling conditions for other sectors is a widely accepted and standardized classification system for identifying and analyzing root causes of failure. In this paper, we propose a comprehensive taxonomy of root causes of failure affecting conservation projects. To develop this, we solicited examples of real-life conservation efforts that were deemed to have failed in some way, identified their underlying root causes of failure and used these to develop a generic, three-tier taxonomy of the ways in which projects fail. We subsequently tested the taxonomy by asking conservation practitioners to use it to classify the causes of failure for conservation efforts they had been involved in. No significant gaps or redundancies were identified during this testing phase. We then analyzed the frequency that particular root causes were encountered by projects within this test sample, which suggested that some root causes may be more likely to be reported in projects implementing particular types of conservation action, while others may frequently occur across a range of different project types. We propose that this taxonomy could be used to help improve identification, analysis and subsequent learning from failed conservation efforts, address some of the barriers that currently limit the ability of conservation practitioners to learn from failure, and contribute to establishing an effective culture of learning from failure within conservation. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved


  • failure, classification, learning, adaptive management, reflection, informing solutions
Original languageEnglish
JournalConservation Biology
Early online date13 Jun 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jun 2022
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