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Field Notes: Boosting biodiversity by studying human values, gender

  • The Bengal tigers in Chitwan National Park are on the increase largely due to the positive conservation values practiced in local communities that actively protect the forests that create a buffer zone around the protected areas where the big cats live.
  • However, researchers found that women in these Nepali communities were less likely to value protecting endangered animals than men. Teri Allendorf and her collaborators conducted interviews and found that this gender gap is driven by differences in belief and experience.
  • The Nepali women often aren’t included in conservation efforts, and so lack knowledge regarding the value of ecosystems. Similar findings have been seen in other nations: people who understand interrelationships between natural and human communities value protected areas more.
  • Surprisingly, this issue also exists in developed countries: If women aren’t included in conservation efforts, then opportunities for success can be missed. Addressing the impact of women’s access to information may be one way to close this conservation gender gap, suggests Allendorf.
Teri Allendorf with community forest committee members. Photo courtesy of Teri Allendorf

The number of Bengal tigers is growing in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park — a United Nations World Heritage Site. The endangered cats have become healthier, and their population is flourishing along with the forests that local communities have actively protected. These community forests create important buffer zones that surround protected areas of the terai; a plains region with wetlands, scrub savanna, and sal forests where the big cats live.

Unfortunately, this conservation success story has led to a growing number of human-wildlife conflicts. The rise in tiger population has been accompanied by a growing number of people being injured or killed by the animals. From 1998 to 2006, 65 people were killed, compared with just six human deaths in the preceding nine years.

In an effort to reduce conflict, researchers decided to map how people felt about tigers and their conservation. They found that people living in wealthier areas — less risky places for tiger attacks — were more compassionate toward the big cats. Gender also affected conservation attitudes, with women less likely to be positive about the endangered animals, according to a recent study.

But why? Teasing out the values that people hold toward conservation — and the differing reasons they hold those values — is the focus of research by conservation biologist Teri Allendorf, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA.

Nepal’s Chitwan National Park is one of the last strongholds of the Bengal tiger. Considered a conservation success story, this World Heritage Site sustains 125 of the endangered big cats on 1,000 square kilometers (621 square miles) of land, up from about 50 tigers in 1998. Photo by Paul Mannix on flickr

Allendorf has dug deeply into the varying perspectives of individuals within communities, and, significantly, has found that women are often left out of conservation work — depriving them of information that might lead to support for those efforts. If women aren’t included, then opportunities for success may be missed. This gender bias against conservation plays out in developed countries, as well.

“If we better understood the diversity of people’s perspectives in communities, then as conservation biologists we might be better able to interact and work with people to achieve our mutual goals,” says Allendorf.

Mongabay: With a PhD in conservation biology, how did you end up studying human attitudes instead of animals?

Allendorf: Maybe it’s not so surprising, because I got my bachelor’s degree [from Northwestern University] in anthropology and I was a Peace Corps fisheries volunteer in Nepal before I went to grad school. I thought I’d do something ecological because I came from more of a science background, until I realized what really drove me was understanding what people think.

I’ve done research in Myanmar, China, India and Nepal to understand what people think about protected areas and sacred and community forests. It is often as simple as going door-to-door and asking people what they perceive as the benefits and problems of the protected areas.

It turns out that [peoples’] ideas about ecosystem services are good predictors of whether someone will say they like a protected area [or not]. When communities have positive feelings toward protected areas, then conservation projects have more favorable outcomes.

A poached Bengal tiger skin from Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Killing tigers for body parts is a persistent global threat to the species. Understanding and working with local community values can help reduce poaching. Photo by Lee Poston/WWF

One source of problems: often the protected area’s staff [don’t] know how to work with their communities; they think [it has to be] an antagonistic relationship. But [when you use] simple tools to learn what people [in communities] actually think — such as our surveys — suddenly [the staff] sees a platform for engaging with locals.

In one instance in Myanmar, a warden had the idea of working with local hotel owners to build garbage bins along the busy road to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, a Buddhist pilgrimage site. The project gave the warden a reason to talk with these businesses and form relationships, which was something he hadn’t done before. That’s the key to a lot of conservation projects; those first contacts, and working together are the foundation for building positive relationships.

So, that’s been the thrust of what I’ve done: to articulate and elucidate those values that people have, and try, hopefully, to move us away from thinking only in terms of the economic benefits of conservation.

Mongabay: What did you discover in talking with Nepali communities about tigers?

Allendorf: I collaborated with Neil Carter, a wildlife conservationist now at Boise State University in Idaho, who was [then] studying one area of Chitwan where he’d already explored how the higher likelihood of a tiger attack near someone’s home made them less compassionate toward the animals.

We wanted to see if gender mattered, too. So, we used the surveys he had conducted with 499 people, which asked people a series of questions about their socioeconomic status, education, experience with tigers, perception of risk around tigers, and beliefs.

Training community forestry guards to find tiger tracks. Local women, with their many home duties, rarely have time to be involved in such projects, so they lack knowledge of conservation initiatives and their value to the community. Photo courtesy of Teri Allendorf

Overall, women were less positive than the men about tigers. And it was a difference in beliefs that accounted for about two-thirds of that gender gap. In particular, women were less likely to believe that tigers contribute to maintaining a healthy forest.

The lessons we pulled out of the tiger studies are so similar to studies [from my previous work] about attitudes toward protected areas in Myanmar and China. People who understand ecosystems and how things all work together, value protected areas more. And that was also key when you looked at attitudes toward tigers.

In those earlier studies, women were less likely to have positive attitudes toward protected areas because they were less likely to perceive ecosystem benefits from them, such as better water or soil. And these attitudes come from a lack of knowledge about these protected areas. The women tend to have less formal education. They also have less access to public meetings and community groups [who are working on conservation issues].

Village life on the east side of Chitwan National Park, where people live next door to the forest where tigers reside. Here, in a riskier area for tiger encounters, people’s attitudes were not as positive toward the animals. Photo by Sue Nichols/Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability

Even in developed countries, research shows that — when you break it down by gender — women tend to know less about the environment and are less likely to participate in environmental activities outside the home (although they are highly involved in home-based activities, such as recycling). Women are also less involved in wildlife conservation in government positions and in research.

Mongabay: How can gender perceptions impact conservation?

Allendorf: It has big implications for management and how you can approach projects differently.

For example, in studies of forestry groups in Nepal and India, research shows that when more women are involved, there’s more monitoring and better rule enforcement, so the forest areas regenerate faster.

Despite poverty and low education throughout the country, Nepal is very progressive in thinking about conservation and community involvement. But everyone struggles in terms of how to get women involved. Women are constrained by time burdens; the more meetings you want to have, the harder it is to get women to participate because they don’t have the time.

The impact of access to information is interesting because that may be a piece that conservationists are missing out on. Finding other ways to give women access to information, so they can figure out their own ways to integrate it into their lives, may work better than thinking about [women] as agents who we want to act in one way or another.

A tiger captured in camera trap in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Local women were less likely to value protecting the tigers than men, largely because women aren’t included in conservation efforts, and they lack knowledge regarding the value of ecosystems. Photo by Neil Carter

For instance, more information about protected areas could affect intra-household bargaining, the ways people negotiate decision making within a household, such as how money is earned and spent. Most of the community forestry groups in Nepal are run by older men, because the younger men go to the Middle East to find better paying work. In one group, the young men told me their wives were not supportive of them staying at home to protect the forest because they would earn less money. If their wives were more supportive of maintaining the environment, then households might make different decisions about where they invest their time.

At every turn, I’m trying to figure out the human aspects that affect conservation so we can better conserve biodiversity.


For more on the topic:

Allendorf TD, Allendorf K. (2013) Gender and attitudes toward protected areas in Myanmar. Soc. Nat. Resour. Vol. 26, pp. 962–976.

Allendorf TD. (2007) Residents’ attitudes toward three protected areas in southwestern Nepal. Biodivers. Conserv. Vol. 16, pp. 2087–2102.

Allendorf TD, Yang J. (2013) The role of ecosystem services in park–people relationships: the case of Gaoligongshan nature reserve in Southwest China. Biol. Conserv. Vol. 167, pp. 187–193.

Agarwal B. (2009) Gender and forest conservation: the impact of women’s participation in community forest governance. Ecol. Econ. Vol. 68, pp. 2785–2799.

Carter NH, Riley SJ, Shortridge A, Shrestha BK, Liu J. Spatial assessment of attitudes toward tigers in Nepal. Ambio (2014a) Vol. 43, pp. 125–137.

Carter NH, Viña A, Hull V, McConnell WJ, Axinn W, Ghimire D, Liu J. Coupled human and natural systems approach to wildlife research and conservation. Ecol. Soc. (2014b) Vol. 19, pp. 43.