Despite substantial growth in the field of conservation planning, the speed and success with which conservation plans are converted into conservation action remains limited. This gap between science and action extends beyond conservation planning into many other applied sciences and has been linked to complexity of current societal problems, compartmentalization of knowledge and management sectors, and limited collaboration between scientists and decision makers. Transdisciplinary approaches have been proposed as a possible way to address these challenges and to bridge the gap between science and action. These approaches move beyond the bridging of disciplines to an approach in which science becomes a social process resolving problems through the participation and mutual learning of stakeholders. We explored the principles of transdisciplinarity, in light of our experiences as conservation-planning researchers working in South Africa, to better understand what is required to make conservation planning transdisciplinary and therefore more effective. Using the transdisciplinary hierarchy of knowledge (empirical, pragmatic, normative, and purposive), we found that conservation planning has succeeded in integrating many empirical disciplines into the pragmatic stakeholder-engaged process of strategy development and implementation. Nevertheless, challenges remain in engagement of the social sciences and in understanding the social context of implementation. Farther up this knowledge hierarchy, at the normative and purposive levels, we found that a lack of integrated land-use planning and policies (normative) and the dominant effect of national values (purposive) that prioritize growth and development limit the effectiveness and relevance of conservation plans. The transdisciplinary hierarchy of knowledge highlighted that we need to move beyond bridging the empirical and pragmatic disciplines into the complex normative world of laws, policies, and planning and become engaged in the purposive processes of decision making, behavior change, and value transfer. Although there are indications of progress in this direction, working at the normative and purposive levels requires time, leadership, resources, skills that are absent in conservation training and practice, and new forms of recognition in systems of scientific reward and funding.