Book Review: The PARTNERS Principles for Community-Based Conservation

PARTNERS_book_thb Among the many animal issues I feel passionate about, the protection of endangered species ranks among the highest, so I got very excited when I heard about the Snow Leopard Trust’s recently published book by its Science and Conservation Director, Dr. Charudutt Mishra, designed to help make conservation efforts much more effective.

At the same time, before diving in, I confess to also having some initial misgivings. Would the book be understandable to someone who wasn’t either in the thick of fieldwork or in the hallowed halls of academia? Would its lessons be broadly applicable beyond an individual species or ecosystem? Could a convincing case be made for each point it sought to impart? Would its takeaways amount to anything I didn’t know already? Would the writing style lose me after a couple of chapters?

Fortunately, it turns out that I needn’t have worried. Not only was the book everything I could have hoped for, but I can honestly say I believe it should be required reading for anyone who cares about compassionate conservation — and here’s why:

  • Highly accessible content – This book is suitable for a very wide audience; there is literally something for everyone with an interest in this area, and clearly a great deal of thought went into making the text as understandable as possible without insulting the reader’s intelligence. That’s a tricky balancing act, and one that Dr. Mishra pulled off with great skill. Everything was designed for optimum absorption, including manageable chapter lengths and bullet-point summaries at the end of each. One of the most helpful components of the book is a graphic that neatly summarizes the PARTNERS principles at a glance (see below) — but it’s by no means a replacement for the book itself. While it offers a preview into what the reader can expect to learn, its value is maximized as a mnemonic device to be referred to after reading the book.


  • Thought-provoking perspectives – One of the things I most appreciate about this book is the way it defies traditional, widely adopted approaches to conservation work and provides compelling arguments for an alternate — and ultimately, far more productive — mindset. A particularly memorable example is upending the notions of who is the service “provider” versus “recipient.”

    A longtime source of difficulty for conservationists has been the various conflicts, both direct and indirect, between the activities of human populations in particular areas and the welfare of endangered species that inhabit those areas. As Dr. Mishra states, ”Conservation will continue to struggle when it is at odds with the needs of those who live and work in nature, and we need to stop thinking of people as the problem, but as part of the solution.”

    The book explores in depth how such solutions might be implemented in a manner that honors both local communities and conservation goals — in part through attitudinal shifts on the part of conservationists who, by and large, tend to be outsiders and have typically viewed their roles through a paternalistic lens as reformers and saviors providing aid to local communities in exchange for compliance. Many of these outsiders find themselves frustrated when non-compliance persists “after everything we’ve given them.”

    Dr. Mishra challenges this mindset: “In large parts of the world, the main costs of conservation continue to be borne by the relatively poor, living in and around Protected Areas or generally important biodiversity areas. The cost of conservation to local communities due to curtailed access to natural resources, ecosystem services, and developmental programs are further aggravated by wildlife-caused damage, including injuries or loss of human life, and economic and psychological impacts…It is helpful, and even humbling, to consider that in many ways, the communities are the main provider…in the form of their potential support for biodiversity conservation that we are seeking.”

    He further implores us to consider, “How often have we turned away sales representatives arriving unannounced at our door? Why shouldn’t we expect communities to do the same? Community-based conservation relies on the devolution of conservation responsibility to local people. Thus, in most ways, in community-based conservation, we are the recipients…who depend on the community to meet conservation goals.”

    A mindset shift of this nature and magnitude has the potential to completely reframe and redefine the way conservationists approach and behave toward communities living alongside wildlife. The book delves into the various forms that these behaviors can and should take to make conservation efforts more beneficial for all concerned.

  • Exploration of failure as a teaching tool – Another strength of this book is its unusually transparent discussion of strategies and tactics that did not work in the field and, even more importantly, why they were unsuccessful. The reader’s learning experience is made complete by the contrast between these failures and the far more successful experience-based practices the book recommends. It takes a great deal of courage and strength for an individual and/or organization to disclose and assume accountability for past mistakes; most tend to shy away from this for fear of losing support and credibility, but that is an even bigger mistake. Dr. Mishra and the Snow Leopard Trust are to be commended for recognizing that only through the relentless pursuit of learning from failure can the pinnacle of success be reached.

  • Emphasis on takeaways – My work over the years has exposed me to lots of case studies in articles and books that were intended to illustrate a particular point but were often unsuccessful in doing so. The authors were so focused on the details of the incidents in question, and discussed them at such length, that losing my attention and my understanding of the bigger picture was an unfortunate and all-too-frequent outcome. Faced with the prospect of what could potentially be one giant book-length case study, I felt some trepidation at first, but was greatly reassured to see that right from the beginning, this book closely adhered to one of journalism’s key maxims: “Don’t bury the lede.”

    Rather than going on ad infinitum with esoteric details of a particular incident and leaving the reader with a bunch of guesswork regarding any potentially transferable themes, this book consistently and with great clarity imparted each of its various lessons first, followed by specific and relevant illustrations from the field. In fact, the book is structured such that its first two-thirds are focused on exploring each of the PARTNERS principles in turn, supplemented with numerous examples, while only the final third goes into extensive detail regarding program-specific efforts. But because the lessons have all been discussed upfront, the more detailed account of those program-specific efforts is much more meaningful and engaging, and serves to reinforce rather than leave to chance the reader’s learning experience.

  • Universal themes – Before reading this book, I wondered whether its principles would be all-encompassing enough to be relevant in completely different ecosystems than the Himalayas, and — from my layperson’s perspective – I would answer with a resounding YES. While the book wisely reiterates at multiple points the caution that every community, every situation, and every environment is unique and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I could envision many of the broad brushstrokes of its recommendations being just as successful for protecting elephants in Africa or manatees in South America as they have been for protecting snow leopards in Central Asia.

  • Conversational tone – Part of what made this book a pleasure to read was the author’s intelligent yet informal and engaging writing style. Rather than being dry, esoteric, or preachy, it was direct, candid, and non-judgmental. Among other factors, the skillfully pitched tone was what kept me reading from cover to cover.

  • No purchase necessary – Considering how valuable this book is, I would have plonked down good money for it (or at least begged for a reviewer’s copy!), but luckily for the conservation community, the Snow Leopard Trust is intent on removing any barriers to accessing the book’s content and has generously made it available free of charge as a downloadable PDF e-book from the organization’s web site. Those who prefer their reading material in hardcopy can receive a print version for a nominal fee by contacting the Snow Leopard Trust. That’s it – no excuses for not getting your paws on it one way or another!

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you wildlife lovers out there that this book is a must-read, feel free to post your thoughts in the Comments section below once you’ve had a chance to check it out.