Succeeding poorly or failing better?


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CONSERVATIONISTS from a variety of backgrounds recently met in Delhi to discuss ways to find common cause in the beleaguered arena of conservation targets.1 The key question was: How can we be more effective in conserving wild habitats and species? Coming on the heels of the latest tiger crisis, the underlying concern was clear: as things stood, the conservation collective was not being particularly effective in arresting, or even slowing down, the widespread decline of wildlife. This was somewhat paradoxical because, everywhere we looked groups were striving hard, and even apparently succeeding, with the conservation they did.

There we were, earnest conservationists all, trying to state, often as pithy slogans, what we ‘stood for’. To some the welfare of people was the primary concern, with biological conservation seen as an important means to that end. For others the needs of wildlife itself came first, with the corollary that its human costs were simply inevitable and had to be borne by society. Some felt that people were an important part of the problem facing wildlife conservation and, therefore, it was necessary to put greater distance between people and wildlife. Others equally passionately argued that if people were part of the problem, the only way forward was to make them part of the solution as well.

While some felt that the only way forward was to strengthen the hand of the government through better legislative powers and executive resources, others argued that crisis after crisis had established how the government had abdicated its responsibility to the country’s natural heritage and citizens, and there was now a strong case to embrace alternate decentralized governance mechanisms. Yet, our thoughts never quite seemed to crystallize into a firm statement of position. The more we heard different sides of the debate, the more resonance we found with at least snatches of every dissonant voice in the room.

This experience in itself is not novel. For decades, we have walked in circles proclaiming many individual conservation successes but bemoaning a collective conservation failure. But it is only when we accept that notions of ‘conservation’ encompass a landscape of vastly differing meanings to a fractured conservation community, can we appreciate why defining effectiveness within this landscape remains so arbitrary.


Conservation practitioners around the world, although united in their dedication to the cause, have always been deeply divided in their choice of conservation targets, ideology and method. Their desire to conserve wildlife and natural landscapes stems from motivations spanning the entire breadth, from purely biocentric to largely anthropocentric concerns. Anthropocentric approaches have stressed the need for conservation to maintain or enhance resource harvests for people, whereas biocentric approaches prioritize values of wild species, natural habitats and their role in maintaining ecosystem health to the exclusion of competing human claims.2

Often, these positions are staked out with abundant good intent but little understanding of the local ecology and society or their complex interrelationships. This has given rise to strong conservation ideologies and entrenched conservation approaches that can work to neutralize – rather than complement – each other. This attitude has favoured dissipation of energy in efforts seeking to wholly replace one conservation dogma (e.g., an exclusion based approach) with another (e.g., a rights based approach), even as reality takes its own course. More recently, wider debates on equity, social justice, human rights and development models have become entwined with the conservation dialectic, further muddying the already turbulent waters.


The way this plays out while trying to assess the ‘effectiveness’ of conservation efforts is that what is considered a resounding success by one group is often read as an abysmal failure by other conservationists with priorities/ideologies different from the first. Project Tiger is a much flogged example, but a good one nevertheless. Here was a programme which had a clear conservation target and, presumably, a well-defined path to get there based on effective implementation of a network of highly managed, actively protected tiger reserves. A decade later, both managers and ecologists were of the opinion that the project was a huge success,3 and all that was required was to carry forward that success.

Today, few people across the conservation landscape share that assessment. Most ecologists like us feel the need to question the scientific basis of a programme with a runaway emphasis on tigers to the exclusion of everything else it once symbolized: other species, habitats and ecosystem processes. Is it that in our enthusiasm to save the flagship, we are in danger of losing the fleet? And if ecologists are divided, another group of less bio-centric conservationists argue that these ‘successes’ have been built on the sacrifices and marginalization of already dispossessed people, and that they are simply not sustainable, equitable or just.

Ironically, while the legitimate rights of local communities on ecosystem resources have been denied by arbitrary enforcement of wildlife laws, big business and industry continue to feast on these same natural resources.4 What is striking about this debate is that every stance is backed with an equally compelling rationale, and that none of them are in and of themselves wrong when viewed through different ideological lenses.5 All it proves is that ideology is a poor instrument of decision-making, and that messier, less absolute definitions may need to guide the search for effective conservation.


Up front, we may have to accept that finding a definition for conservation is one of those problems for the ‘too-hard’ basket. It will continue to mean different things to different people. Given the nature of the conservation community, it is perhaps naive to expect that conservationists of different persuasions will step away from their strongly held ideological positions to attempt a dialogue on common spaces. Moreover, when conservation itself is defined and understood in so many different ways, it is perhaps simplistic to believe that there is any single overarching agreement on what constitutes effectiveness in conservation.

In the race for effective conservation, as in any other, we must draw the finish line before we start to run. Conservation success can only be measured against a set of predefined goals, but these goals are seldom articulated and it is rare to measure our progress towards them. Quite often, many years and billions of rupees later, we are still unable to claim if our goals were indeed achieved.


Take the example of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. After surveys across northwest India, this site was identified by wildlife scientists as one with the greatest potential to establish a second home for the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica, which today exists in a single population in Gir National Park of Gujarat. It was felt that the 5,000 or so people and their livestock, who resided in 24 villages within Kuno, had to be properly relocated and rehabilitated before further steps were taken to initiate the reintroduction of lions. This strategy held out two sets of promises for conservation. On the one hand it was thought to offer the villagers a materially better life while, on the other, it would allow Kuno’s habitat and wildlife populations to recover from the disturbance and pressure on resources that these villages and their livestock imposed on the landscape.

However, scant effort was made to corroborate these beliefs with on-ground scientific assessments. Nevertheless, relocations were undertaken between 1999 and 2001. Though no clear measurable goals, ecological or human, were stated for this exercise, a close monitoring of the human impact of this measure was initiated by Kabra and her colleagues.6 Today, most of Kuno stands free of human habitation, which in itself is considered a conservation success by many. However, just as there was no rigorous scientific assessment of the impact of these villages on the surrounding habitat and wildlife prior to their resettlement, there has been little follow-up thereafter to scientifically establish conservation gains.


As for the people, Kabra and her colleagues have shown lost livelihoods and deepening poverty as direct fallouts of the relocation. Also, villagers who were moved to lands too poor to provide fodder and drinking water for their 2,500 cattle were forced to leave them behind in Kuno itself. Once held responsible for degrading habitat in Kuno and potentially out-competing wild prey, these cattle have now been arbitrarily elevated to the status of ‘buffer prey’ by scientists in recent reports.7 So, what were the finish lines at Kuno, and how does one read this example – as success or failure – in a conservation context? While Kabra’s work clearly establishes the heavy human cost at which this conservation strategy was implemented, the benefit accruing to the forests and wildlife of Kuno, quite disturbingly, still remain an article of faith.

Yet, with the use of ideological lenses, the fog around the Kuno example appears to lift miraculously. Ideologues of preservationism claim the rendering of hundreds of square kilometres of forest free from human habitation itself a measure of its resounding conservation success, whereas the advocates of rights-based ideologies of conservation equally justifiably hold up the same example as a damning failure, arguing that it has frittered away the local stake in conservation and further marginalized socially backward groups.


But Kuno is not an isolated example where we have failed to draw finish lines before we began. In Bhadra Tiger Reserve too, where a qualitatively better relocation of forest villages was undertaken, no common currencies or baselines, either ecological or human, are available based on which to judge its degree of success as a conservation intervention. Around Bandipur Tiger Reserve, a phenomenal effort by a group known as Namma Sangha has seen the adoption of LPG by over 10,000 families that previously depended on fuelwood harvested from the reserve. Yet, in the absence of measurable goals, baselines and monitoring, its effectiveness as a conservation intervention – or as one that has furthered goals of human welfare – unfortunately remains undecided.

While these examples illustrate problems in judging success or failure of conservation interventions, ideology plays an even more crucial role in problem identification. In a recent study, one of us (Madhusudan) tracked down and wove together three disparate processes – a severe agrarian crisis in the villages north of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, a traditional practice of grazing livestock in the reserve in violation of wildlife law, and a contingency in global coffee markets that suddenly inflated profits made by coffee growers in districts around Bandipur. The coming together of these three seemingly unrelated processes resulted in a large-scale commercial export (by debt-ridden peasants) of dung collected from vast numbers of cattle that grazed within Bandipur to the coffee estates in the surrounding regions.

Although we viewed this as an ecological disaster because of the pressures it imposed on Bandipur (from thousands of livestock grazing in the forest), social activists concerned with the agrarian crisis read the changes as representing startling innovation in the face of socioeconomic uncertainty – a triumph of the human spirit over adversity. This example highlights how the narrow disciplinary confines or the spatio-temporal limits of our enquiry limit the ability to understand processes driving our conservation landscape. It is disturbing that with ideological lenses, we are able to pose clear conservation problems while filtering out the staggering complexity that surrounds conservation.


Usually conservationists (and we include ourselves in this ragtag bunch) give scant attention to the multi-dimensionality of conservation problems, seldom articulate measurable goals, and rarely question their method. On the whole they remain more concerned with celebrating action rather than auditing outcome. We do not doubt that any movement towards successful conservation can only come through decisive action, but these actions themselves are grounded in deep ideological roots which, we believe, need to be far more clearly acknowledged and articulated. Broadly speaking, these ideologies see conservation of ecosystems or species either as their primary goal or as an incidental by-product based on assumptions about the nature of the relationship between two important priorities: human development and natural resource conservation.

Adams and others8 lay down these assumptions as four basic ideological assertions that underlie most conservation action. First, human development and conservation are mutually incompatible and cannot be pursued within the same space. This represents the entrenched positions of many at the ideological extremes of the conservation community today. Second, human development is a critical constraint on conservation. In other words, unless human development takes place, conservation cannot proceed. If you do not, for instance, first remove the dependence of human communities for fuelwood from a natural area, no amount of habitat improvement will help the situation. Third, conservation should not compromise human development. This is basically a normative statement that makes a clear distinction between conservation and human development, stating that conservation should not impede the progress of human aspirations and growth.


Finally, human development depends on effective natural resource conservation. This view looks at conservation primarily as a resource securing measure, the success of which would ensure the progress of human communities. At least one of these assumptions invariably lies at the heart of every conservation effort, though they are rarely articulated, far less proven. For a start, if conservation groups do nothing more than acknowledge that these axioms exist, stated or unstated, it might enable a sensible debate that does not get mired in the familiar swamps of ideology or methodology.


We should perhaps have begun by stating our antecedents, but we’ll do it now. We consider ourselves conservation biologists by training.9 However, after more than a decade of understanding and attempting conservation in the real world, we have come to the grudging acknowledgement that biology may not lie at the centre of the conservation universe. Conservation in the real world is bogglingly multidimensional, and biology is just one of its many drivers. A significant part of it is concerned with local culture, community institutions, economics and politics, interacting in often complex ways with ecological systems and species for the natural resources they represent.10 Both these elements (the human system and the ecological system) interact within a wider sphere of policy, law and governance. Contingency too plays a major role: the fate of much of conservation depends on being the right person in the right place at the right time. In such a landscape, using a single metric to capture the effectiveness (or otherwise) of conservation is not only naive, but also seriously flawed.

This does not discount the importance of biological understanding. Regardless of ideological stance, all conservation ultimately concerns ecological targets, be they species, habitats, ecosystems or ecological processes. Further, conservation also necessarily involves bucking trends of decline or degradation in these ecological targets. There is then, in determining conservation action, little or no room for ideology – the rationale for action must necessarily be based on scientific evidence. The four assumptions outlined by Adams et al essentially provide a framework for evidence-based conservation, and can be viewed as a series of testable ‘conservation hypotheses’. The burden of proof of their validity falls on the shoulders of conservation practitioners, be they scientists or activists. Such hypotheses testing should, in best practice, suggest the most effective tools to be employed in a context-specific manner. Eventually of course, every conservation action is an experiment, even if it is an experiment conducted in a much more complex and multifaceted laboratory environment than what scientists usually inhabit.


Even as we move towards evidence-based conservation and away from ideology-driven conservation, we need also to learn broader lessons. A certain level of academic abstraction is perhaps unavoidable if we want to distil principles for conservation that can be generalized and applied. This usually leaves the conservationists cold, because most feel that as real-world practitioners they have little time to get bookish. However, there is something to be gained from embracing a little of that pedantry when approaching conservation issues. If we go beyond case studies and look for common drivers and rate-limiters that prevent effective conservation, it may enable us to identify far more precisely not just where our interventions might be more effective, but also what those interventions should be. This, in turn, provides a framework for measuring effectiveness, in terms of proximate changes (to please our funding agencies) as well as our ultimate conservation aims.


Adapting from Adams et al, we propose that the locus or stance of any conservation ideology is invariably determined by a small but important set of assumptions concerning the relationship between the two vital concerns: ecological targets and human concerns. Though these may appear simplifications, they are, in general, statements that are verifiable in a given context and scale. Verifying and understanding these relationships of ecological targets to the human world or, more specifically, identifying a critical set of human concerns (e.g., economic productivity, poverty, tenurial regime) in a given context and quantifying their relationship to ecological targets is, to us, one of the most critical responsibilities of conservation scientists to conservation practitioners.

In today’s post-modernist pursuit of conservation, each conservation effort often exemplifies little beyond itself, contributing precious little in terms of the general principles for the practice of conservation. Conservation is being carried out like a dreadfully-designed experiment where we are busy devising highly specific outputs while making no effort whatsoever to identify and quantify either the inputs or the initial conditions.

To remedy this situation, we need systematic syntheses of how the achievement of ecological targets fare in relation to a range of economic, socio-cultural, political, institutional and governance parameters. Such an analysis would help identify the set of ecological and social spaces where ecological targets may be addressed, either as goals unto themselves or as spin-offs from the pursuit of immediate human concerns. This might also help judge the utility of a conservation ideology to the securing of an ecological target in a given context. Conservation efforts in the field must establish rigorous baselines, not just for ecological targets but equally for a wider set of social parameters. These baselines should ideally describe trends in the chosen ecological and social parameters, against which any changes can be monitored in relation to interventions either for conservation or for human welfare.


In the pursuit of success in conservation, we also wish to highlight the importance of acknowledging and documenting failures. Measuring effectiveness and demonstrating success goes hand in hand with understanding ineffectiveness and failure. One of the biggest problems within the conservation community is the way it stigmatizes failure. With the growing reluctance to acknowledge and address failure, we progressively diminish our chances of success, for we believe that in every failure are valuable lessons of what went wrong and what may be remedied to avert recurrences.

Effective conservation is ultimately about creating and maintaining negotiated spaces for meeting ecological targets in a human dominated world. A steadfast pursuit of entrenched ideologies and inflexible methodologies of conservation, no matter how well-intentioned, can only diminish such negotiated spaces and leave us with an unenviable choice between succeeding poorly and failing better. This is our only chance, and we can afford neither.


* We are grateful for the critical and constructive reading of earlier drafts of this manuscript by Aparajita Datta, Mahesh Rangarajan and Pavithra Sankaran.



1. Future of Conservation in India. Meeting co-organized by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bombay Natural History Society, Foundation for Ecological Security, Kalpavriksh, Nature Conservation Foundation, People’s Alliance in Central East India, Samrakshan, Wildlife Trust of India, WWF-India on 4-5 February, 2006 at WorldWide Fund for Nature – India, New Delhi.

2. See debates including M.D. Madhusudan and T.R.S. Raman, Conservation and Society 1, 2003, 49-59 and the responses to this piece. Also see V.K. Saberwal and M. Rangarajan (eds.) Battles Over Nature: Science and the Politics of Conservation. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003.

3. See H.S. Panwar, What To Do When You’ve Succeeded: Project Tiger Ten Years Later. Presentation at the IUCN World Parks Congress. 11-22 October 1982, Bali, Indonesia.

4. A. Kothari, S. Suri and N. Singh, Economic and Political Weekly 30, 1995, 2757-2765.

5. See V.K. Saberwal, M. Rangarajan and A. Kothari, Towards Coexistence: People, Wildlife and Protected Areas. Orient Longman, 2000.

6. See A. Kabra, Economic and Political Weekly 38, 2003, 3073-3078 for a background to the Kuno relocation plan and implementation details thereof. Subsequently, in A. Kabra, Economic and Political Weekly 41, 2006, 1309-1311, she has also commented on the significance of the actions in Kuno in relation to a topical debate on relocation as a means to conservation.

7. See A.J.T. Johnsingh, S.P. Goyal and Q. Qureshi, ‘Preparations for the Reintroduction of Asiatic Lion Panthera leo persica, into Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, M.P., India’, Oryx 41, 2007, 93-96. Also see, A.J.T. Johnsingh, Q. Qureshi and S.P. Goyal, Assessment of Prey Population for Lion Reintroduction in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, Central India. Report submitted to Government of India and Government of Madhya Pradesh, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, 2005.

8. W.M. Adams, R. Aveling, D. Brockington, B. Dickson, J. Elliott, J. Hutton, D. Roe, B. Vira and W. Wolmer, ‘Biodiversity Conservation and the Eradication of Poverty’, Science 306, 2004, 1146-1149.

9. For further examples of our research, please see Nature Conservation Foundation’s website at

10. See the following studies that address conservation both from ecological and societal dimensions: C. Mishra, High Altitude Survival: Pastoralism and Wildlife Conservation in the Indian Transhimalaya. PhD thesis, Wageningen University, 2001; R. Arthur, Patterns and Processes of Reef Recovery and Human Resource Use in the Lakshadweep Islands, Indian Ocean. PhD thesis. James Cook University, 2005; M.D. Madhusudan, Uneasy Neighbours: Human Resource-Use and Large Mammal Conservation in the Tropical Forest of Karnataka, India. PhD thesis, National Institute of Advanced Studies and Manipal University, 2003. Also see chapters by A. Datta, ‘Protecting with People in Namdapha: Threatened Forests, Forgotten People’, 2007, pp.165-209 and D. Mudappa and T.R.S. Raman, ‘Rainforest Restoration and Wildife Conservation on Private Lands in the Valparai Plateau, Western Ghats, India’, in G. Shahabuddin and M. Rangarajan (eds) Making Conservation Work, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 210-240.