What is people-centered tiger conservation?

A group of citizen scientists walk through a winding path in the forest

Tigers live in some of the most densely populated regions of the world. The land they roam also supports the livelihoods, culture, traditions, and social existence of local communities. Finding effective ways to partner with people living and working in these areas is vital for the long-term recovery of these big cats.

Living with tigers
Tigers are apex predators that play an important role in maintaining the earth’s ecosystems. They also require large spaces and healthy prey populations across different habitats. As human populations grow and spread rapidly, finding solutions to conserve large carnivores and help local communities thrive has become a challenge.

A Bengal tiger walks across the Kundal Gate in India

For people living in a tiger landscape, the impact of wildlife conservation varies. Positive effects on a community include tourism earnings, employment within protected areas, or, indirectly, through ecosystem services—the resources that nature provides. Negative impacts include loss of land and access or usage rights, loss of decision-making power over resources, impacts on livelihoods, and increased risk of human-wildlife conflict. Often these costs and benefits are unevenly distributed among those facing barriers and those with more power.

Partnering with local communities
On-the-ground examples in different tiger range countries have shown that communities are key to successful tiger conservation. While there is consensus among governments and conservation organizations on the need to engage with communities that live in and around protected areas, there is a lack of practical guidance on how to work with these communities. WWF’s people-centered tiger conservation approach tackles this issue: how to work with communities as partners in long-term tiger conservation?

The main objective of the people-centered tiger conservation approach is to become trusted partners in an equal relationship with communities in tiger landscapes by better understanding the priorities and values of local people; maintaining dialogues and sustaining long-term engagement; and seeking innovations together. The partnership is based on trust, transparency, and continuous monitoring of the impact of biodiversity conservation on local communities.

People-centered tiger conservation recommends overlaying the drivers of social processes and human behavior together with the ecological mapping of landscapes. This will lead to more informed decision-making on planning and conservation to enable human-tiger coexistence under changing conditions.

“Communities living around protected areas and in important corridors are the strongest determinant of conservation successes. Building trust, understanding community diversity, priorities, power dynamics, and allowing the long timescales necessary to develop effective partnerships with communities are essential to successful conservation outcomes in our tiger landscapes.”

Smriti Dahal
Communities Lead, WWF Tigers Alive Initiative

How is this approach different from current community engagement?
Across all tiger landscapes, various people-centered approaches are already underway and form a critical backbone of tiger conservation. Indigenous people, local communities, and other collaborators which share space with tigers are critical to the long-term survival of the species. While WWF has a strong understanding of the biological and ecological aspects of tiger landscapes, we’re still learning about the social dynamics of these landscapes.

Indigenous peoples, local communities, and other partners and their economies are changing faster than our programs can adapt. Many of our current community-based programs do not have the ability to adapt to such chronic change—an issue that we are working to change. Current monitoring of livelihoods and community-based programs is focused on to what degree do communities benefit from those programs (e.g. through income, jobs, or access to training). The theory being if communities benefit financially, they will support the conservation effort. But this doesn’t account for the non-monetary costs of conservation (e.g. loss of access to land and usage rights) and can create a perception of welfare-based projects that can lose the link to conservation impact over time. Monitoring of these programs needs to incorporate these missing factors and strengthen local ownership and buy-in towards the conservation goal.

The Tigers Alive Initiative, through its people-centered tiger conservation approach, is working to address these shortfalls and is driving the much-needed shift from viewing communities as beneficiaries of conservation projects, to working with them as partners in tiger conservation.