What happens when you take 59 leaders from eight African countries, representing dozens of conservation organisations, and guide them on a collaborative, intergenerational learning journey? You gain incredible insights into trends and issues at a critical time for the conservation sector, suggests Elsbeth Dixon, from leadership development organisation, Common Purpose.

For the last two years, Dixon has been working with Southern African Wildlife College and the Environmental Sustainability Agency (ESA) on a Conservation Leadership Programme run through the College’s African Intergenerational Leadership Hub (AIGLH), with the support of the Mava Foundation and Peace Parks. Participants come from eSwatini, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zambia.

‘’Despite dealing with the realities of Covid-related conservation impacts, ongoing wildlife crime, and increasing demands on scarce natural resources, the men and women working in conservation show up for people and the planet, day after day. As the programme nears completion, it has been a privilege to be part of a process to recognise and grow their leadership skills and now, share some of their collective learning,’’ said ESA’s Clive Poultney.

Here are seven take-away lessons from leaders involved in managing some of Africa’s most significant conservation landscapes.

1. Meaningful collaboration with communities is critical.

Conservation leaders know that ‘going it alone’ is not an acceptable or effective strategy, but they wrestle with how to work with communities most effectively in the areas’ they operate in. Despite this, when meeting with engaged community members, the conversations and opportunities for mutual insights are enormous.

2. Conservation must learn from other sectors.

Conservation can be a very inward facing community that will benefit from broadening its horizons and involving multiple and broad stakeholders in conservation activities. Learning from people who are outside the conservation space can help conservationists become more effective. This includes connecting more effectively with indigenous knowledge.

3. You cannot achieve conservation outcomes without addressing climate change.

Conservation thinking needs big picture thinking, and you cannot work in conservation without also looking at the context in which conservationists’ practice. Climate change is a major driver of many challenges facing conservation leaders, who need to recognise how their local efforts connect to the bigger global picture, and that climate change in not a stand-alone issue, but rather a background condition for all their work.

4. Education can help future-proof conservation.

Connecting with the education sector and engaging with young children in a structured and sustained way can provide powerful future impacts to the conservation sector.  It does this by instilling a real love and appreciation for the value of healthy ecosystems in their lives, and providing a focus for future career aspirations, resulting in a new generation of leaders ready to tackle the big conservation issues.

5. Embracing technology makes conservation more successful.

Technology and the possibility of harnessing technology through apps, better data management, and various other platforms and opportunities, is changing how conservation is practiced. Some technologies already allow for incredible impact at scale, and it is important for the sector to keep up, whether it relates to using technology to connect with stakeholders, gather data, improve law enforcement, or learn more about their environment.

6. The wisdom derived from intergenerational learning is more than the sum of its parts.

A profound lesson from the programme that brought young and more senior leaders together, is that youth and experience can be immensely powerful when mixed together. Young leaders can benefit from deep seams of knowledge gathered over decades, while senior leaders can – and are open to – learning from younger people. However, there is a need to create platforms where young conservationists can find and share their voices.

7. Closer ties between conservation organisations benefit everyone.

The programme has broken down distance between conservation organisations by bringing leaders from around Africa together. This prompted a realisation that conservation institutions across Africa are not effectively connected. If you can lessen the distance between them, there are powerful opportunities for support, sharing and impact at scale.

Furthermore, creating interpersonal links between leaders from different organisations and countries is powerfully encouraging for individuals working in often difficult and even dangerous situations. This is something that the Southern African Wildlife College has experienced when bringing people from across Africa together in a learning environment, which then becomes a melting pot for ideas, across its natural resource management programmes.

Find out more

The leadership programme is run in parallel to a community leadership programme, so look out for lessons for conservation from communities being published soon.

View Programme