Protecting wild places is conservation's most pressing task given rapid contemporary declines in biodiversity and massive land use changes. We suggest that behavioural ecology has a valuable, albeit limited, role to play in this agenda. Behaviourally based empiricism and modelling, especially of animal movements and habitat preferences have enjoyed wide applicability in delineating reserve boundaries. In protected areas that sanction exploitation, it may also be important to understand individuals' behavioural and life-history responses to management decisions. We also argue, however, that the in-depth studies of behavioural ecologists may have an important role in conservation by elevating species' status from mundane to charismatic and often sparking public empathy, and their mere presence in field generates local (or broader) intrigue. More generally behavioural ecologists will only be listened to, and their contributions considered of conservation importance, if they become more involved in decision-making processes as witnessed by several prominent examples that have supported the establishment of protected areas. This article is part of the theme issue 'Linking behaviour to dynamics of populations and communities: application of novel approaches in behavioural ecology to conservation'.