Partners Principles has served as the foundation for Snow Leopard Trust’s community-based conservation programs throughout Central and South Asia for years. The Trust has also been running a Partners Principles training program for conservation researchers and practitioners in all snow leopard range countries, and around the world. Over 100 individuals (from NGO to protected area staff) have already participated in this training program, and SLT has sought to expand that reach. We have now developed the eight principles into a pilot online toolkit to benefit even more conservationists, and to address the challenges imposed by pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“Our goal in the Partners principles training initiative is to help improve the general practice of conservation. Partners principles are a resource for engaging with communities to ensure more effective, ethical, and inclusive conservation. The training is context agnostic, and is as applicable to snow leopard conservation as it is for conserving other species and natural areas of the world. Our team is excited to launch this pilot effort to bring some this critical resource f to conservation practitioners through an online platform,” says Charu Mishra, Executive Director of the Trust.
This online toolkit is an excellent supplement to the Partners Principles book because along with explanations of how to best practice the individual principles in any conservation work, we also share real-world testimonials from practitioners around the world. These case studies showcase the principles in direct action that we hope will guide conservationists in implementing them in their own efforts.
Here we provide a smaller sample of the several case studies that are available online. Let’s dive right into examples from across four snow leopard range countries.
PRESENCE | Pakistan
To fully understand and appreciate the challenges that local communities face it is imperative to build meaningful relationships. Presence in this context means going deeper than workshops or periodic meetings, and requires sustained and direct contact with communities, and even immersion within these communities to participate in and understand their way of life.
In this first case study, Hussain Ali from Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan explains the barriers that arose when his team attempted to initiate some ungulate surveys in partnership with a community in Pakistan’s Misgar Valley. A community that they had earlier not partnered with. Welcomed at first, suspicions fomented within the community because no real relationships or trust had been established. The community members became wary of the team’s motives, some even believing that the survey was a ploy for the government to reclaim their grazing land.
Hussain’s team had to pivot and rethink what value they were bringing to the community. After some discussion, the community agreed to allow the ungulate survey because it came with a monetary benefit for the village. But the team knew this would not be enough, and would certainly not contribute to building a resilient long term relationship. Instead of continuously leveraging resources and recognition to convince the community this was in their best interest, the team opted for a simpler path: to build relationships through trust and open, respectful dialogue.
After the initial permission to conduct the survey was granted, the team did not retreat. Over the course of the months it took to finish their research, Hussain and team attended every community gathering, religious ceremony and cultural celebration where they were welcome to slowly build trust. Even after the survey was over, they went back for social visits, and over the next few years built a lasting relationship for conservation that proved crucial during a critical moment when stakes and emotions ran high within the community.
In 2017 the Misgar Valley community captured a snow leopard that had entered a livestock corral. While the government tried to convince the community to release the snow leopard, they refused. But community leaders turned to SLF, now a trusted organization among the community at-large, and asked Hussain’s team to act as intermediary to negotiate the cat’s release.
While this is just a single example, the main takeaway is true of all community conservation efforts. Real relationships are built over time, and require patience, work, and understanding. As you might have read in Partners Principles, “[i]t is helpful to keep in mind that a community is made up of individuals, with emotions, perceptions, and worldviews different from each other and from those of the conservationist trying to effect change”.
APTNESS | India
When a conservation initiative works well, the natural next step is often to bring this new, proven idea to scale. In this second case study, Ajay from Nature Conservation Foundation in India cautions against planning cookie-cutter replications of conservation efforts, because each community and each situation is different, and conservation initiatives must be designed to address the local needs and opportunities. Ajay shares experiences from Spiti Valley, where depredation by snow leopards and wolves severely impacted communities across the region.
Based on years of presence and relationship building, a community-managed livestock insurance program was initiated in the village of Kibber. This program worked well, and, soon, the news spread through the rest of the valley. Ajay’s team was excited to learn that the village of Losar was also interested in this project. After detailed discussions with community members, however, the conservationists discovered that despite their geographic proximity and socio-cultural similarities, the situations and threats faced by both villages were different – and would require differing solutions.
The NCF team found that Losar lost considerably fewer livestock each year than their neighbors just 70km away, and a livestock insurance program would not have benefited the community to the same extent it had in Kibber. Differing grazing practices and land usage led to different circumstances for the herders in Losar. The team learnt that there was an overlap between the grazing land for local livestock herds and wild ibex. With this discovery in mind and the community in Losar still eager to engage in conservation efforts, the team pivoted to an entirely different idea: village reserves.
The NCF team and community representatives proposed setting up community-managed reserves free of livestock grazing to allow for wild ibex to have free reign of the new area. This program was curtailed to the specific needs of Losar, and was implemented over the course of two years and many discussions with the community.
It is vital to remember that while replicating existing solutions might be the easiest way forward – it is not always the best, most practical, or even the most economical solution. The realities of each community and threats they face will differ and must be understood individually. The principle of aptness must be applied to all the conservation efforts undertaken and the programs will need to also adapt over time to meet changing realities.
NEGOTIATION | Mongolia
Respectful, integrative negotiation is implicit in every community-based interaction, from the very beginning of conservation work and through every new initiative. In this third case study, Nadia from Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia shares her own experience negotiating a new livestock insurance program with communities in the South Gobi.
Coming back from Lunar New Year celebrations in 2009, Nadia’s team received a call from field rangers that a snow leopard that was collared by the Trust’s team had been shot by a herder. The herder had lost 26 goats in just a few days, losing sleep worrying over his remaining herd. Fed up, he set up a trap for the predator and soon caught a snow leopard, shooting and killing the cat in the ensuing chaos.
It is noteworthy that the herder, seeing the collar, contacted the SLCF team in Mongolia and did not try to hide the snow leopard. Nadia’s team knew it was important to travel to the Gurvantes village and meet with the community in person, and the team departed immediately. Upon arrival to the affected village her team found that a large annual gathering of local herders was already occurring, adding extra tension to the affair. After a few community members questioned the value of protecting snow leopards and interrogating the motives of SLF, she found that her explanations did not suffice to quell the growing animosity. But Nadia and her team stayed, and remained patient, listening to everyone voice their frustrations for hours.
Nadia admits this was not easy, but took strength from Bayara, our remarkable Mongolia Program Director, who showed empathy even in the midst of accusations. Bayara asked the community how they could solve this together and an elder answered: compensate the losses. At this point there were no livestock insurance schemes conducted by SLCF in Mongolia, but Nadia and Bayara explained the basic tenets of the program as it existed in our India Program. The community agreed to test this solution and in the years since it has expanded from just six participants to over 60 households participating in the scheme, providing them with an economic safety net.
This negotiation was not the typical tit-for-tat that we often associate with the term, but required active listening, patience and understanding. Nadia and Bayara did not attempt to win the herders over to their side, but focused on their mutual interests. This mutual collaboration resulted in a positive outcome for all involved, including snow leopards.
EMPATHY | Kyrgyzstan
Empathy is vital for community-based conservation practitioners to employ in any interaction or engagement with community members. The challenges faced by people living among wildlife can vary drastically from those faced by people in urban areas, and require special attention. In this last case study Benazir from Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan discusses scenarios that occurred with participants of Snow Leopard Enterprises in the remote Tian Shan mountains.
In two instances, community members had deviated from their conservation agreements. They had ended up using some collective funds arising from the conservation handicrafts program (Snow Leopard Enterprises) that were meant for the entire community without consulting SLFK, as had been outlined in the agreement. Without knowing the full story, this breach of agreement might warrant a reprimand or loss of the annual conservation bonus. But the fuller picture is necessary to understand the motivations of the community. It turned out that in the first instance, funds were diverted for an emergency life-threatening surgery. In the second instance, the unfortunate passing away of a community member prompted them to grant compensation to the family to cover funeral costs. As Benazir mentions, the SLFK team realized these were circumstances that required the community to act quickly – and respected the decisions they made despite the potential breach in trust by not first consulting the conservation team.
In a separate occurrence, Benazir discusses a new beekeeping initiative that was often met with skepticism by local community members. Despite this skepticism, she says that the team knew they must listen to their concerns, whether or not they were related to the actual conservation program, and continue attending the regular community meetings. After one of these meetings, a community member invited her team to his home, where they shared tea and he told stories about his life. Through this interaction, the team gained better insight into why community members might be apprehensive about engaging with conservation organizations and continued to build trust with the community over time.
There are several other case studies in the Partners Principles online toolkit that have more videos, as well as engaging activities for practitioners to utilize to better understand and practice all eight principles.
The Partners Principles initiative has been made possible by generous support from the Whitley Fund for Nature, Melkus Family Foundation, and the Acacia Conservation Fund.