Tigers as kin: Reconceptualising wildlife conservation and development in indigenous/local contexts

Lead Research Organisation: Zoological Society of London
Department Name: Insitute of Zoology


Aims: In order to understand the position of indigenous peoples in the global ecological crisis, this project asks, 'how do local and indigenous societies maintain multispecies relations and biocultural conservation amidst externally driven change?'
Importance: In the past 50 years, an increasing proportion of indigenous lands and cultures have come under pressure from the homogenising forces of market-based capitalism and one-size-fits-all conservation and development. Over the same period, 60% of all wildlife populations have been lost. This is not a coincidence. Although indigenous peoples represent <5% of the global population, indigenously managed land still constitutes about 40% of all ecologically intact landscapes across the Earth. In the era of Anthropocene, we need new frameworks and tools to understand how these diverse local/indigenous worlds, where nature and culture intertwine, will maintain biocultural conservation in the face of rapid socio-ecological change.
Rationale: Conservation traces its history to West-centric ideologies that see nature as distinct and separate from humanity. It relies on natural science approaches that allow certain areas to be labelled 'natural', and thus worthy of conservation, while the remaining, where 'culture' lives, can then be 'developed'. Across numerous local/indigenous societies, where conservation operates, nature and culture are not seen as essentially separate. Enforcing externally conceived categories on diverse local human-nature relations had led to conflicts and failures that have continually undermined many present-day conservation programs. This widely relevant work proposes to re-conceptualise conservation research and practice as an interdisciplinary ethical collaboration. Moving beyond critiques, it pushes the current conservation paradigm in a new direction and shows how to meaningfully integrate natural and social sciences, indigenous and western knowledges, and science and ethics.
Research context: This research is based in three ethnic homelands in the Northeast Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh. There are plans to build nearly 200 mega-dams, highways and monoculture plantations in this once remote multi-ethnic region. Here, an entirely new tiger population was recently identified thriving outside conventional conservation mechanisms. This research, set within the context of the entry of global conservation NGOs, governments and developers, uses the case of the endangered tiger to explore larger questions around the role of local people in global conservation and development. Original multidisciplinary fieldwork will be conducted across these ethnic homelands in the region operating under comparable geopolitical conditions. In each, ecological tools (camera traps, remote sensing) and quantitative survey methods (questionnaires) to study wildlife will be integrated within multi-perspectivist ethnographic approaches to understand the changing nature of human-wildlife relations. Working from the ground up and with local people, this project will understand human-wildlife relations as they exist, on their own terms, destabilising earlier dichotomies. Data across the sites will be combined to understand what allows customary arrangements that support multispecies coexistence to adapt, resist or collapse under external pressures. In addition, this research will also investigate how these pressures (that emerge from, amongst others, free-market economy, policy implementation and climate change), act upon local practices.
Impact: The project will produce 8 academic articles co-authored with local collaborators, a research framework published as a booklet, a cross-departmental interdisciplinary graduate course, 3 non-academic books in local languages (one from each site) on cultural stories of human-wildlife relations, regular articles in popular media, and white papers/policy briefs for UK government/institutions' on environmental policy at home and abroad.

Planned Impact

In addition to academic outputs, this research will produce 3 non-academic books in local languages (one each from Idu, Adi and Tagin homelands) on cultural stories of human-wildlife relations, regular articles in popular media, and white papers/policy briefs aimed at policymakers both domestically and overseas. Impacts of these outputs are aimed at:
1. Academia: The impact in academia will be in the form of multidisciplinary academic publications, research framework/protocols, conferences talks and workshops, development of novel training modules and mentorship of UK and overseas researchers.
2. Conservation practitioners (NGOs): Conservation's morally justified goal has been, in some instances, greatly comprised by its problematic execution. A lack of understanding of local histories, cultures and knowledges has led to dramatic events such as a criminal investigation into WWF for alleged violence against indigenous people of the Congo basin, possible eviction of over a million tribal people from Indian forests and East Africans from joint use areas. Academic articles, research and practice framework, and white papers created in this FLF will be shared with UK-based and global conservation organisations including WWF, FFI, WCS and Panthera. This framework, which stresses the need to understand and work within local realities, applies as much to conservation conflicts in India as the conflict between Crofters and geese in the U.K. Research oriented organisations will also benefit from the automated REM camera trap data analysis software. I will work closely with ZSL's CP to inform their global efforts.
3. Policymakers: I will make my research available to UK and international advocacy groups for policy change. These include, for instance, India-based Kalpavriksh and the global International Consortium on Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), of whom I am a member, which support local/indigenous communities against resource grabs by powerful industry and state actors. Finally, these white papers will also be shared with government departments (e.g. UKAID, DFID, GCRF) and UK-based institutions (e.g. ZSL, WWF) that support conservation and development programs aboard.
4. Local people: (a) Local language publications: Since formal school education is conducted in Hindi/English, most indigenous languages in Arunachal are fast disappearing. Local language books produced in collaboration with local people will act as important repositories of cultural and linguistic knowledge. (b) Local people have previously used my research to lobby the government for more decision-making power over their forest and wildlife. I will continue to share research findings with local bodies and co-write policy memos on locally identified issues of concern. (c) Mentorship: I will mentor local RAs through training in English language and scientific research methods, and facilitate participation in academic conferences. All academic publications will be co-authored by local interlocutors and field assistants. This not only ensures local vetting of research material; it also helps young indigenous people who may wish to pursue further academic studies themselves.
5. Wider public: A key impact will be the reframing of popular discourse on the role of local/indigenous peoples in conservation. This will be done via: (a) Website: Research material generated during the FLF will be made available open source, in highly accessible language, on a dedicated project website hosted by IoZ. (b) Media: I will write at least 2 popular articles per year from Year 2 for widely read magazines (Sanctuary Asia, National Geographic, Mongabay); Indian newspapers (The Hindu, Times of India); regional/state media (The Arunachal Times); and international media (The Guardian). (c) Face-to-face interactions: Being based at ZSL's London Zoo provides opportunities to interact with a range of audience via Science days, Education and Outreach programs in British schools and colleges.


10 25 50
Description This is an ongoing multi-year, multi-partner project, therefore a significant amount of the work is currently in progress. However, we have achieved the following key milestones
1. Setup a network of indigenous scholars from Northeast India who have begun conducting long-term interdisciplinary fieldwork in their homelands. Over the past year, the scholars received training in natural and social sciences and Indigenous methodologies to prepare them for challenging mandate of this research project. They are being supervised by a committee of interdisciplinary scholars, including the PI, and Indigenous academics from around the world. This is the first time such a cohort has been created in the region that is attempting to ethically and meaningfully bring together different disciplines, backgrounds, and knowledge systems to create new knowledge.
2. Establish the groundwork to begin experimenting with new a methodology that combines scientific tools for ecological data collection (such as camera traps, GPS' etc.) with indigenous knowledge and epistemology to generate new knowledge on animal ecology. This will need input from different sub-disciplines within the social sciences such as Material Anthropology and Science and Technology studies, and conservation biology such as animal behaviour, and statistical ecology. This will be integrated with Indigenous knowledge making it a uniquely interdisciplinary and inter-epistemological methodological process. Developing this methodology will be a major outcome of the project.
3. Designed and taught a new 2-month course on 'Conservation Social Science' focusing on South Asia. It included guest lectures from 9 subject-area experts from across the world, including some Indigenous scholars. The course was delivered in hybrid online/physical mode to students across institutions from all over South Asia. This has filled a key gap in conservation training across academic institutions in the region. The curriculum has been adopted into course modules by several academic institutions in India. This course will also form the basis of a forthcoming module on human-animal relations. This will be hosted at UCL/ZSL and efforts will be made to make it available to graduate students across different departments such as conservation biology, geography, anthropology and medical sciences.
Exploitation Route 1. Academic: This research has direct relevance for academia in two ways: 1) The course modules that this project is creating fill gaps in taught courses within the UK and the project site - India. The courses are already being taken up by other academics and institutions to be taught on a regular basis. 2) This project challenges traditional academic practice that has divided knowledge into disciplinary boundaries (social vs natural sciences), written vs oral (with written knowledge taking supremacy), and global vs indigenous/local (with global expertise taking precedence). This is pushing at the boundaries of academia in terms of who produces knowledge, about what, on whose terms, who owns it and how it is shared. The impacts of such a shift are far reaching.
2. Policy: This research feeds directly to policy because it is led by Indigenous People on their own lands, some of whom have direct connections to policymakers. In addition, the project team regularly engages with decision-makers via briefs and submissions.
3. Conservation: The project also supports efforts by local people to conserve ecosystems and biodiversity. Since Indigenous Peoples are co-creators of the research work, it is not seen as an outside agenda.
Sectors Education,Environment

Description 1. Research forms the backbone of innovation, and drives both economy and policy. This research has one more component - it has a strong social justice and equity focus that has consequences for wellbeing of communities within and beyond the U.K. It is not simply the outputs of research that impact people, the research process also impacts local people's lives. This is increasingly being recognised in academia and research community as is evident through increasing focus on decolonising academia. However, we still do not know how to create research institutions that meaningfully and ethically allow Indigenous People and other historically marginalised communities to create knowledge, both on their own term and in collaboration with Western institutions. In the same vein, while British universities wish to attract more international students from even more diverse monitory backgrounds, we need to develop strategies on how to meaningfully, respectfully, and productively engage with backgrounds, experiences and knowledge systems they bring with themselves. This is exactly what this project hopes to deliver. The outcomes of this work repositions the UK not only a global leader in research, but in ethical and just research that takes note of history and seeks to do better. 2. Importantly, the knowledge co-produced in this project is fed back to communities who decide to use it to protect their land and biodiversity. This has already happened in one Indigenous community who have recently set aside 6500 ha of their forest land as a community conserved area. Such initiatives are important in mitigating the impacts of climate change, species extinction, and maintaining planetary health in ethical and locally responsible ways. All this contributes towards UK's commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description British Asian Trust
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact Well designed, well funded project developed in consultation with local communities have the potential of delivering lasting impacting on local wellbeing and biodiversity conservation.
Description Community Conserved Areas
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or improved professional practice
Impact The CCA is generating income for local communities through eco-tourism and other social enterprise, while also protecting habitats and biodiversity.
Description Honorary member of the International Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) Consortium
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact I am an Honorary Member of the International Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) Consortium. The ICCA Consortium is a movement association established to promote the appropriate recognition of, and support to, indigenous peoples' and community conserved areas and territories (ICCAs) at local, national and international levels. This purpose is set in the context of the broader vision of conserving biodiversity and ecological functions, nurturing the sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing of indigenous peoples and local communities, and implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples- including self-determination and the full respect of their cultural diversity and collective and individual rights and responsibilities. My role is in a scientific capacity. The impact is difficult to ascertain as yet.
Description Species status assessment for the IUCN RedList
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact I was appointed the lead assessor for the conservation status assessment for two species - Himalayan serow and red goral - for the IUCN RedList. The (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. I led a team of several international contributors to prepare a comprehensive database on these species' ecology, distribution patterns, population status and threats. Based on this information and predetermined criteria, I ascertained whether these species should be classified as 'Critically endangered', 'Endangered', 'Threatened', 'Vulnerable' or 'Least Concern'.
Description Rajiv Gandhi University 
Organisation Rajiv Gandhi University
Country India 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We conduct trainings and teach courses at the university and co-supervise local students
Collaborator Contribution Professors from RGU sit on the supervisory panel of the project and co-organise seminars/conferences
Impact 1. Co-supervision of research assistants 2. Teaching courses and organising trainings
Start Year 2021
Description Scientist - Nature Conservation Foundation 
Organisation Nature Conservation Foundation
Country India 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We have diversify NCF's portfolio, bring in additional core funding and add new skills to it's staff
Collaborator Contribution Financial management, funding, admin support, research equipment, skills and training, sense of community
Impact 1. Creation of a local bio-cultural research and conservation program 2. Creation of a multidisciplinary (ecology and anthropology) PhD program focused only on indigenous scholar 3. Launch of a unique shamanic knowledge learning program for an indigenous community
Start Year 2020
Description Coexistence Fellowship 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Designed and taught a new 2-month course on 'Conservation Social Science' focusing on South Asia. It included guest lectures from 9 subject-area experts from across the world, including some Indigenous scholars. The course was delivered in hybrid online/physical mode to students across institutions from all over South Asia. This has filled a key gap in conservation training across academic institutions in the region. The curriculum has been adopted into course modules by several academic institutions in India.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.coexistenceconsortium.com