Cook CN, G Wardell-Johnson, RW Carter and M Hockings (2014) How accurate is the local ecological knowledge of protected area practitioners?. ECOLOGY AND SOCIETY 19(2)

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The scarcity of environmental data means that other sources of information are needed to complement empirical evidence for conservation decisions. By regularly interacting with their local environment, protected area practitioners may generate local ecological knowledge (LEK) that can be used to inform management decisions. However, the accuracy of LEK is generally poorly understood, and no studies have assessed the accuracy of practitioners' personal knowledge, leading to a vital gap in our ability to best use this information to guide management. We measured the accuracy of practitioners' knowledge of the vegetation condition within protected areas, relative to an empirical vegetation condition assessment tool. Despite the vast majority of practitioners having only personal experiences to inform their judgments, we found that almost 60% of practitioners made assessments of vegetation condition that matched the empirical condition estimates. When inaccurate, practitioners tended to be conservative in their estimates of condition. Although underestimating condition in this way may waste resources through unnecessary management actions, this is likely to be preferable to overestimating condition and thus failing to protect biodiversity by prematurely ceasing restoration programs. We found no relationship between the accuracy of practitioners' LEK and their level of experience as a practitioner, their level of education, or their gender. We believe that under many circumstances practitioners can be a valuable and cost-effective source of information about the condition of the protected areas they manage, but that more research is needed to understand the wide range of factors that may contribute to how land managers build LEK and how management agencies can assist practitioners to build a good understanding of the conditions in their reserves.