I’m stunned. Speechless. This conversation was supposed to be about how conservationists and herders in northern Pakistan could work together to protect snow leopards, and how that would help everyone. Instead, I’m suddenly forced to defend the cats, myself, and everything we do, as an angry herder levels a series of accusations against me. They’re harsh and relentless, and I’m not sure they’re completely off base.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. Dr. Ali Nawaz, the director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan, comes to my rescue, responding to the herder respectfully, but powerfully. He shares sincere sorrow at the losses of the herders. But then he asks questions. “How many livestock did you lose? Are you sure they were taken by snow leopards? How many animals died from diseases in the same time span?”
Other villagers present at the meeting speak up, admitting that livestock losses may not necessarily have grown from previous years. One herder says he lost a dozen goats to disease last winter, and wants to know more about the vaccination program we mentioned. An elder apologizes for his hotheaded neighbor’s hostility, and asks some critical questions of his own. Slowly, the conversation takes on a more positive, constructive tone. We seem to be making some progress.
Then, the exercise is over. ‘Villagers’ put their conservationist hats back on, and I breathe a sigh of relief that this was only a role-playing session. Time to analyze what happened.
“Community Engagement for Snow Leopard Conservation”, the title of the workshop I’m participating in, sounded slightly abstract two days ago. Now, thanks to a role-playing session on negotiations that allowed me to assume the role of a field conservationist for half an hour, it has become very real and tangible.
Field teams from Kyrgyzstan, India, and Pakistan have come together for this workshop in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala-Archa National Park to discuss best practices, experiences and principles of how to engage with communities that share snow leopard habitat in order to protect the endangered cat.
The PARTNERS Principles – Our Approach to Community-Based Conservation
A Darwin Initiative grant has provided this opportunity to get the teams together. The workshop is based on the PARTNERS Principles, an acronym that describes the Snow Leopard Trust’s approach to community based conservation:
- Presence of the conservationist in the community,
- Aptness of conservation interventions,
- Respect for local people,
- Transparency in interactions,
- Strategic support.
Social scientist Juliette Young and ecologist Stephen Redpath have worked with Charu Mishra, SLT’s Science and Conservation Director, to design the workshop.
I’m here to learn from them, and to give inputs on how we can do a better job of communicating about this challenging work with supporters, donors, and friends – on how to bring the stories from the roof of the world into homes across the planet.
I work with the team on the principles of storytelling, on characters, plot, narrative arc, and on theory of change. I show them examples from the likes of Humans of New York or charity:water to demonstrate the powerful impact of great storytelling for a cause.
Later, as my colleagues from Pakistan, India, and Kyrgyzstan share the stories they’ve experienced in their work, I can sense how they’re trying to employ those principles, and I feel a certain sense of pride that I imagine every teacher knows very well.
However, when we reenact some of those stories in the role-playing session, I’m very much the student, and I’m in way over my head. Looks like I’ve quite a way to go before I could be a successful field conservationist.
I know that many of the people who live in snow leopard habitat are herders, depending on livestock for their livelihoods. I’m aware that to them, the carnivorous cat can be a source of trouble, rather than a valuable species worth saving.
One of the keys of our approach is to partner with these communities and find solutions to conflicts between their interests and those of conservation.
Offsetting losses through livestock insurance schemes is one approach that has worked in many areas. Vaccinating livestock has been a successful strategy as well, particularly in regions where herders were losing more animals to disease than to predation. Generating alternative sources of income, e.g. through selling handicrafts under the Snow Leopard Enterprises label, is another well-received idea.
In all those programs, partner communities agree to protect snow leopards and wild prey species in their area from hunting or retaliation killings, while we provide the means and training to improve their livelihoods.
From a distance, these programs seem like easy win-wins.
What I wasn’t fully aware of – but learned the hard way in the exercise on ’negotiating with communities’ – is how things can be a lot more complicated than they seem.
“I’ve been received by some communities like a dear friend, while others met me with outright hostility”, explains Hussain Ali, a senior research associate in our Pakistan program, and the man who, a few minutes ago, so convincingly mimed the angry herder in our role-play session. “I was trying to be relatively nice to you”, he says with a smile.
As a researcher, Hussain often spends several weeks ‘embedded’ in a community – eating, praying, and talking with the locals. “Over time, a mutual trust usually develops” he says, “but in the beginning, it can be tough!”
Marginalized Communities Bear the Brunt of Conservation
“We shouldn’t be surprised by those challenges. Many of these rural communities are marginalized economically and politically, and at the same time, they bear the brunt of conservation”, explains Dr. Charu Mishra, who leads the Community Engagement workshop. “It’s up to us as conservationists to find ways to build relationships and share the costs of protecting wildlife with these people.”
The workshop was designed to help field teams cope with these challenges, develop their confidence in community engagements, and build strong, mutually beneficial partnerships with the communities they work with.
“Like every human relationship, community partnerships require empathy, respect, honesty and a lot of time,” Charu says.
There are no set rules to engaging with communities, and each village, each family, each person, is different. But in the PARTNERS document that Charu has developed from the collective experience of our field teams, eight shared principles and best practices are provided that can guide a field conservationist’s work with rural communities:
“For instance, it’s crucial for our work to not only understand the ecological challenges, but also the cultural context of a community. Even as natural scientists, we can’t lose sight of social phenomena; religion, social structures and so on. They can greatly influence attitudes towards wildlife.”
Later, Khurshid Ali Shah, who heads the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan’s office in Chitral, will tell a story that’ll perfectly underline Charu’s point.
“Once I spent a week in a remote village, trying to get the community’s support for conservation. One day, a highly respected local Muslim religious leader asked me why I was trying to protect snow leopards. He felt that the predator was causing too much damage to the community and should be gotten rid of. I explained to him that I understood my job as that of a guardian of God’s creation, and that I was perhaps sent here because God’s creations were not safe in the area. I told him that I believed we had no right to remove this cat from the world God had given us, and that I felt it was our duty to preserve it. He fell silent, reflected on what I had said, then shook my hand and told me I had his support.”
Being Immersed in Communities
“This story is more than a nice anecdote”, Charu Mishra says. “It shows how important it is to think of cultural contexts. This religious leader would not have been convinced by an economic argument, for instance. But he was open to a spiritual one”
Beyond that, Charu says, the example also demonstrates why it’s crucial to be present in partner communities: “Khurshid had spent several days in this community, eating, sleeping, praying with the people. He earned their trust with his sustained presence, his empathy, and respectful interactions. An outsider, someone who had just arrived the same morning, would perhaps not have been able to win the religious leader’s support.”
Later that day, I suddenly realize why Khurshid’s story impressed me so much.
It perfectly follows all the principles of storytelling that I’ve rambled on about a few days before. It has two memorable characters that find themselves in a situation of conflict, and it has a resolution that’s poetic and powerful. Just the kind of stuff I look for as a communications officer. The next time I hold a training on storytelling, I won’t have to think very hard about a great example.
The workshop on community engagement was supported by a grant from the Darwin Initiative. Whitley Fund for Nature has been a long-term supporter of our community-based conservation programs, and the Acacia Conservation Fund provided support for the development of the PARTNERS document. Our Kyrgyzstan team hosted the workshop, and we are especially thankful to Kubanych Jumabay, our Program Director and Cholpon Abasova.