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Understanding Humans to Conserve Nature

On the occasion of Day 2, dedicated to science and knowledge, an MPA manager (Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef) and a scientist (David Obura, CORDIO) discuss to what extent science can help make sound decisions.

It turns out that the effectiveness of science depends not only on the cool, rational examination of facts, but also on a deeply human trait: empathy. Scientists who want to make a difference must stay attuned to managers' needs, who must themselves keep in mind the interests of users.

Jon Day: At Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, science is our underpinning. Not primarily academic, research-paper oriented science but science applied to practical purposes, such as on-site monitoring. Because, as you know, habitats and species in the park need to be closely watched in the face of rather frightening developments, with coral dying from changes in climate and water quality.
But beyond the natural sciences, whether applied or fundamental, we also rely on the social sciences: we need to understand how users use the park, and grasp their expectations and behaviors.

David Obura: The threat to coral is exactly the same in the western Indian Ocean as in Australia. At CORDIO we carry out some fundamental science, but most of our work is specifically geared at helping managers. In fact that's one of my criteria to assess science: it is useless unless it can be communicated. We strive to understand users' and stakeholders' needs so we can back them up.

Jon Day: It's also a question of taking advantage of what users and stakeholders have to contribute. Our marine park is larger than Italy. There's no way our staff can be everywhere and see everything. So users act as our watchmen. We rely on them to tell us when they see fishing in the wrong place or notice a breeching whale. We've developed a smartphone app to help them do so, called "Eye on the Reef".

David Obura: In traditional cultures, populations have less access to new technologies. On the other had, ancestral knowledge is still very much alive. Scientists themselves have a lot to learn from listening to locals.

Jon Day is Director of Heritage Conservation at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia.
David Obura is a Director of CORDIO (Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean), based in Mombasa, Kenya.

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