Human Dimensions of Conservation

Human Dimensions of Conservation

LoraKim Joyner, DVM, MPVM, MDiv

Abstract: Conservation teams are increasingly focusing on the human dimensions of avian conservation. Research in and application of human dimensions include conservation psychology, ethnoornithology, and social and emotional intelligence. Conservation psychology takes into account the science of human behavior and then coaches people to care by integration cognition, emotions, and behavior. Ethnoornithology studies the relationships between humans and birds, and uses this information to form more inclusive and effective conservation teams. Social and emotional intelligence emphasizes communication skills, empathy, and cognitive integration. Examples are given of all 3 fields used in the author’s avian conservation practices. Though it is not possible for everyone involved in psittacine conservation to become proficient with the sociological aspects of human and avian relationships, there is much merit in forming multidisciplinary teams that include social scientists or facilitators to help us navigate the complexity of human thinking and behavior.


Fully instantiated, care includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. In order to care…people must be informed, people must feel, and people should act in ways that will express both their knowledge and their emotions.1

Parameters affecting a parrot’s conservation status are plentiful in Central America, and are similar to negative impacts to parrot populations around the world. Twenty-five years of conservation medicine and research has yielded these as the most common limiting factors in Central America: predation of chicks and fledglings, nest parasites, malnutrition of chicks, Africanized bees colonizing nest cavities, poaching, habitat loss, human security issues (gang and drug violence, corruption, government instability), and human well-being (poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, and disease). By far the greatest toll on nest success and a population are the human factors. In many areas, poverty and unequal distribution of resources threaten not only political stability, but biodiversity. Turner reports that where there is poverty, ecosystem health is fundamentally important to the people’s well being.2 Yet it is these very same areas of impoverishment that are the highest biodiversity concern of the well-being of people everywhere. Turner goes on to say, “Working in international conservation, I know that nearly all conservation efforts are local. The success of any project or program largely hinges on how well it addressed the needs and constraints defined by a place’s people, institutions and conditions, and how well it engages those people and institutions in creating solutions.”

Engaging people is no easy task. Up to 30%–50% of conservation projects in Mexicofail not due to funding restrictions or characteristics of the species or habitat, but due to interpersonal conflict and lack of social capital.3 Furthermore, socioeconomic issues impacting the quality of life of humans correlates with the ability of individuals and communities to partner in conservation plans. Because science and conservation do not exist in a vacuum without human agents or human culture, increasingly conservation teams incorporate social scientists in their multidisciplinary teams, or others who can address the human dimensions of conservation.

Focusing on human dimensions aids conservation in many ways. Values, which impact behavior, can be more greatly clarified and shared. People understand that everyone is invited to participate equally, improving commitment, mutual respect, and trust. These relationships help construct solidarity in diverse communities, which are often present in conservation areas. Furthermore, focusing on human components fosters inspiration and creativity needed to sustain solutions at the local community level. This paper highlights just 3 aspects of human dimensions considered in conservation: conservation psychology, ethnoornithology, and social and emotional intelligence.

Conservation Psychology

The field of conservation psychology takes what we know about the science of human behavior and the interdependence between humans and nature and then seeks to promote a healthy and sustainable relationship between them.1 Conservation psychology persistently and deeply asks what is the human place in nature, and what is nature’s place in the human being? These questions are asked so that we can sustain care. Conservation psychology coaches people to care by integrating cognition, emotions, and behavior. Given that 60% of the earth’s ecosystems are being used unsustainably, Clayton and Myers urgently ask, “Where are the psychologists on conservation research teams?”1

If they were present, they would guide others in understanding the intersection between behavior and values, attitudes, value orientation, ideologies, and a plethora of cognitive constructs. Although cognition is an important aspect of their work, how people think may not be the key influence on any specific behavior impacting the environment or animals. Instead, emotion drives moral behavior, and reason comes in afterwards in what we would call “rationalization.” Rees writes, “Humans…overestimate the role of mindful intelligence even as our actions are being controlled by the lower brain centers. In fact, much of expressed human behavior is shaped by emotions and subconscious mental processes.” Recent research suggests that emotion is an important indicator of sustainable behaviors. For example, by encouraging students to “try to imagine how a bird feels” researchers were able to increase emotions associated with empathy, and this empathic response in turn correlated to a greater willingness and obligation to help nature.1

Human structures of values also impact our behavior, often subconsciously, and “understanding every human group’s structure of values is a prerequisite for conservation work.”1 Findings suggest that “values related to conformity, tradition, security, and self enhancement support utilitarian views toward wildlife, while values related to openness to change and self-transcendence support more protectionist, aesthetic, and mutualistic views toward wildlife.”5

These values then orient in different combinations, of which two are prominent in North America: domination, and mutualism or egalitarianism.5 “The stronger one’s domination orientation, the more likely he or she will be to prioritize human well-being over wildlife, accept actions that result in death or other intrusive control of wildlife, and evaluate treatment of wildlife in utilitarian terms. A mutualism wildlife value orientation, in contrast, views wildlife as capable of living in relationships of trust with humans, as life-forms having rights like those of humans, as part of an extended family, and as deserving caring and compassion.” Differences in these orientations result in conflict and difficulty in developing conservation strategies that address different needs and desires.

Conservation psychology helps us understand and normalize why we are different and then helps us engage in individual and social processes that enable us to work together. These processes help people communicate and hence gain knowledge, feel, and integrate cognitive and emotive functions with behavior. One process of behavioral change is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), popular with companion birds as well as with humans. If people can be given frequent positive feedback in discrete small steps, their behavior can change.1

Not only is individual behavior important, but so too is overall behavior and social maturity of conservation teams, organizations, and communities. Local people develop greater investment and commitment to conservation strategies if empathetic understanding, provision of choice, transparent administration, and non-controlling communicating and feedback is part of routine organizational operations.1 Community-based resource management also relies on understanding how operant psychological variables interact in a given culture. It is unwise to make broad assumptions before studying a culture. For instance, normally we would expect cultures with the greatest social capital, such as the density of social ties, trust, and institutions, to have the most sustainable agroforestry practices. In one study in Guatemala, the opposite was found to be true: the Itza’ had the lowest social capital, and also the lowest forest clearance rate. This was because the Itza’ had higher plant-animal interactions and negotiated the costs and benefits of resource use based on spiritual values and understandings of the forest.1 How a people think of the land and animals matters in how they interact with the ecosystem.

Other processes invoked in conservation psychology include environmental education (including offering practical and doable actions to care for animals and ecosystems), practice in ethical and moral discourse, such as socioscience6 and wildlife ethics, learning and applying emotional and social intelligence, ,1 promoting opportunities for meaning making and hope, and studying societal structures such as group identity, power differences in wealth, politics, privilege, biophilic and spiritual tendencies, and knowing and using local knowledge of birds (ethnoornithology).

“Every human group has a structure of values, and to understand its total shape should be a prerequisite for conservation work,”1 including conservation and veterinary medical teams.

 Ethnoornithology in Conservation Teams

Ethnoornithology “explores how peoples of various times and places seek to understand the lives of the birds round them.”7 It studies the relationships between humans and birds. Research methods include collecting copious notes of events, as well as conducting interviews and surveys while being immersed in the culture. To understand how the people working in the complex and often discouraging situation of conservation in Central America thought of birds, I conducted ethnoornithological research targeting conservationists working in Central America in 2009–2011. My goal was to see what motivated them to do this work, how they made meaning of their work, and how we could use this understanding to support and improve our efforts.

The activity that meant the most to the workers was performing the work itself.(collecting data and applying knowledge to improve the lives of birds) and the times when team work was most manifest. Meaning making also happened frequently around meals when stories were told of the work and experiences. Also, meaning evolved during the collection and review of media, such as photographs and videos. While watching media, the gathered partake in both silent storytelling as well as spoken meaning making as they talk about what they are seeing. Meanings that frequently surfaced regarding their efforts included: love, conversion, calling, insiders/outsiders, interconnection, death, hope, end times (eschatology, apocalypse), sacrifice, service, suffering, compassion, worth and dignity, awe, wonder, social justice, prophetic voice, resistance, solidarity. Having time for meaning making activities allowed the team to work together more harmoniously and efficiently across differences of class, ethnicity, language, gender, religion, age, values, and behavior patterns.

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Each conservation area requires particular strategies that fit the species, people, cultures, ecosystem, and limiting factors in the environment and human communities. Conducting location specific research in the fields of ethnoornithology and psychology adds to our understanding of limiting factors as well as potential resources to guide behavior. Behavior that we often elect to change includes use and misuse of environmental resources, trapping and hunting of birds and other wildlife, and social relationship skills.

Improving relational skills and the way we communicate aids conservation teams to work with greater satisfaction and effectiveness. For instance, human physicians experience high rates of burn out, and the number of malpractice suits is correlated to impaired communication and shorter patient visits. Spending time with staff and patients decreases the chance for compassion fatigue. Superb leaders in human services are not those with greater knowledge or technical skill, but those with highly developed interpersonal skills like empathy and conflict resolution.8 Medical staffs perform better when they feel they have a secure base to work from, such as an organization that operates with a high level of social intelligence. Social intelligence is the ability to act from understanding our interior lives (intrapersonal skills) and our lives in relationship to others (interpersonal skills). The more attentive we can be to the emotions and status of another person or animal, the more likely we are able to respond with greater care, in more ambiguous situations, and more quickly. To be more attentive to another person, we strive to understand them, as well as ourselves.

Social intelligence also contributes to organizational management of conservation teams. Cutting-edge business leadership models focus on empathy and deep listening within the organization to improve success. The shift is from producing results to producing the growth of people who produce great results.8 Success depends on both intrapersonal and interpersonal skill development, which grows businesses and relationships. Life-giving relationships are the powerful engine of successful organizations, and compassion and empathy are great tools for increasing power in organizations. Positive emotions make a difference in a work place as do expectations and clarity of how we are to “treat one another” on a day-to-day basis. Practices that produce positive emotional encounters result in individuals with higher commitments to the organization. One such practice that I use regularly is known as Nonviolent Communication (Compassionate Communication).

Compassionate Communication

Background and theory

Compassionate Communication, based on Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication theory, emphasizes honesty and empathy in interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.9 Through practice it leads to shifts in thinking and emotional responses. It is based on the understanding that human beings operate best in social groups when they receive empathy. Greater connection and rapport between individuals, so paramount in social discourse, happens if language used and even deeper consciousness reflected in body language, is founded upon the idea of universal needs and not on judgment, blame, or domination to get needs met. Instead empathy through deep listening, authentic sharing of needs and feelings, and clear requests suggest the best strategy for people to come up with creative solutions where everyone is heard and has their needs considered, as well as the needs of nonhuman animals. Turner develops this theory by developing concrete ways that people can transact through the medium of needs to produce positive emotions and commitment.10

Empathy and listening

Active  listening helps us attune to others and their internal states. By stilling the cognitive loops and chatter that go on inside of us, we come to attentive recognition of what another is feeling, and have a greater chance to understand them and offer empathy. When another person feels heard and receives empathy, they in turn are in a better place to listen to another, as well as to recognize their own emotional state without it being overridden by concerns of threat from others.

A core concept for having compassion and empathy for others, is to have it for yourself. When you attend to your own feelings and needs, it offers you a sense of connectedness to humanity because all humans universally share basic needs.11 Furthermore, knowing your actual needs and not some “should stories” inherited from family and culture, orients you to what might satisfy you. In this spaciousness, you can then listen and open to the needs of others, without judging yourself or them. In addition, even though you may not meet your specific needs in the way hoped for, by self-reflecting and attuning to your feelings and needs, you give yourself choices on which actions might actually better meet the needs that arise in you instead of reverting to strategies that repeatedly fall short of bringing results and satisfaction in your communication and relationships.

Basics of nonviolent communication in compassionate communication

Nonviolent Communication is a social construct, one of many cognitive frameworks for growing interpersonal and intrapersonal understanding and skills. By practicing with the 4 components, Nonviolent Communication shifts our thinking and rewires our cognitive loops so that our orientation increasingly embraces compassion towards ourselves and others. Words need not even be spoken, as our consciousness demonstrates in paraverbal and nonverbal cues that we have empathy for others. The 4 components of this relational tool are not to be taken literally or to be seen as a cure all for all relational ills and situations. They are a guide that can alter our negative cognitive loops and bring mindfulness and satisfaction to our lives. The following description and example are but one drop in the ocean of a life-long practice.

Four components of nonviolent communication


  • We observe and speak based on factual, observable phenomena such as what a video camera might record
  • Observations are differentiated from evaluations or judgment


  • We express feelings when we can, which are differentiated from thoughts
  • Our feelings are not caused by others, but by a met or unmet need


  • Our specific needs are differentiated from strategies, which are the practices we employ to meet our needs.
  • Our needs are universal, whereas strategies are specific to the person and place
  • Having a met or unmet need stimulates our feelings
  • Persistent feelings are stimulated by thought and cognitive loops, and likely don’t have much to do with current needs
  • Our needs connect us to our shared humanity (and to other life through evolutionary connections)


  • Requests are differentiated from demands and have no conditions
  • Requests are more likely to be heard and less likely to be resisted by others
  • They are framed to be positive, concrete, and doable in the moment
  • We make requests that strive to attend to the needs of all involved (human and non human)
  • Underlying our requests is a search for connection and understanding

Using all four components together:

When I see or hear…I feel…Because I need…Would you be willing to…

Connection: tell me how you are feeling about what I said? or tell me what you heard from what I said?

Action: (concrete, positive, doable)     do….


In this example, a conservation team member is speaking to a local community member whose family poaches parrots. The community member appears anxious and states, “This is my land, you cannot tell me what to do.”

An example ‘of “violent communication” would go something like this:

“This isn’t your land as you have no deed to it. It’s against the law to poach parrots and I can have you arrested. Don’t you care about your parrots?  If you want parrots for the generations to come you better quite poaching.”

The risk of responding like this is that the community member will feel alienation, defensive, and will be unwilling to listen to you, or to work with you.

Instead of arguing, further persuading, rationalizing, or defending, the conservationists might do this:

Empathize with self first:

“No wonder I am so irritated, I really long for the well-being of parrots and I know how hard smuggling is on the health of birds. I also desire for parrot populations to stabilize in this area.”

Empathize with community member:

“I’m guessing that you really enjoy working in the forest and working with the young parrot chicks. Is that right? I can also see how selling one of these chicks in the local town can add significantly to your income this year, especially given that with the drought, the crops have not done well.”

After the community member feels heard and empathized with, you say

“When I hear you say that your family is struggling and how much you enjoy the parrots here, I feel sad because I would like for you to have the resources you need for a good life, including having parrots in this area for your children to enjoy when they are your age. Would you be willing to come to a meeting tonight held by the elders of your village to discuss what your community might do to get more income and also keep the parrots from leaving this area as they have in most areas of your country?”

This conversation has been exaggerated so the reader might decipher the use of the 4 components. However played out, reality suggests that such a conversation may not “fix” the poaching problem immediately. Attempting to empathize with yourself and the community member, however, does open up the possibility for the greater trust, compassion, and creativity to address complex conservation situations in the future.


In the avian conservation projects with which I work, I recruit several human dimension aspects in the conservation plan. For instance, I offer training in social and emotional intelligence focusing mostly on a Nonviolent Communication. This training happens for all members of the team to improve relationships, commitment, and synergistic creativity, as well as give them tools to work with the multitude of human communities with which we interact. We do this so we can improve communication, bring all constituents fully engaged to the planning table, and positively impact behavioral patterns that are ultimately harmful to individuals, communities, birds, and the ecosystems. I also plan time for meaning-making activities, including discussion, so that we can grow our empathy towards one another, construct shared meanings, engage in ethical discourse, and normalize and constructively utilize any overt or hidden conflict. Finally, I stress the importance of social science research in our conservation plans, often conducting this work myself.


To escape ecological destruction, we must overcome our fear of authentic psychological development and attend to the human dimensions of our work. Using social intelligence to communicate and become increasingly self-reflective may also lower the high risk of addiction, suicide, and stress persistent in veterinary medicine. For our own sakes and for the planet’s, I invite us as a profession and organization to learn and utilize human behavior, or collaborate with those that do, so that we can train ourselves to take better care of one another and the human communities and birds whom we serve.


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