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Sending a message about rhino conservation in Nepal

As of 9th April, not a single rhino was killed in the last 365 days making it the fifth time that Nepal achieved this success since 2011. Image courtesy of Christy Williams / WWF.

  • Since 2011, Nepal has recorded five 365-day periods without any rhinos poached, despite its proximity to the key rhino-horn markets of Vietnam and China.
  • Experts say strategic communications have been an important tool in this conservation success.
  • The communications strategies used involve not just getting out the word about conservation successes through new and old media, but also seeking ideas and feedback from local communities.

Last May, a fire in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park sent a clear message to the whole world. More than 4,000 wildlife parts from 48 different species, including 357 rhino horns, were set ablaze, and not just as a means of managing a stockpile confiscated over 20 years. The photo opportunity provided an image that was both striking and evocative, which was picked up by media ranging from The Kathmandu Post to the BBC. The government had gathered not only representatives of conservation agencies and NGOs, but also security chiefs, foreign diplomats and aid agencies, civil society groups, local communities and global media to the bonfire intended to serve as an emblem of Nepal’s commitment to stamping out wildlife crime.

Based on an audit completed in July 2016, more than 4,000 wildlife parts of 48 different species including 67 tiger skins and 357 rhino horns were burnt in Chitwan National Park in May 2017. Image courtesy of WWF Nepal / Akash Shrestha.

This carefully crafted publicity event is just one example of the communications strategy used by WWF Nepal to promote wildlife conservation. The organization collects stories from the field, sets up outreach events, and uses social networks to engage with the public, with the ultimate aim of preserving nature and protecting endangered species.

So what role does communication play in Nepal’s anti-poaching efforts, and how useful has it been?

Zero-poaching narrative

WWF Nepal marks its 25th anniversary this year, and the greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) is the organization’s priority species. The country has recorded five 365-day periods of zero poaching of rhinos since 2011. It’s a remarkable feat, given the Himalayan country’s proximity to the main rhino-horn markets of China and Vietnam. This, says Simrika Sharma, who until March this year was WWF Nepal’s senior communications officer, is the single most well-received message about rhino conservation globally, and it has turned the global spotlight on Nepal’s commitment to saving rhinos.

Zero poaching, Sharma says, is a conservation success rather than a communication campaign. Still Nepal’s strategy has been the subject of many press releases, and WWF has successfully used zero-poaching landmarks as pegs to build stories around people and events. “This helped people both within and beyond Nepal to understand Nepal’s effort in rhino conservation while rest of the world struggled to save them,” she says.

Sharma says effective communication is the key to building trust and ensuring that conservation programs are sustainable. In 2016, just before authorities were preparing to move the first batch of rhinos to Bardia National Park from Chitwan National Park, there was a protest by local people concerned with the rhinos’ safety in Bardia, based on past experience; during the decade-long armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and the government, which ended in 2006, almost all the translocated rhinos in Bardia were poached.

So WWF Nepal mobilized local media for a follow-up story in Bardia after the new translocation. “When the Chitwan-based media carried [off] a positive follow-up story on the status of translocated rhinos the perception changed to a greater extent making the 2017 translocation relatively easy,” she said.

Sharma, who now works for the U.N. but spoke to Mongabay while still at the WWF, says many rural areas across the country Nepal still lack basic facilities like roads or electricity. But mobile phones and the digital revolution have already reached many Nepalese valleys, and social media is increasing in reach, especially among the tech-savvy youth. Still, she says, traditional media like newspapers and television continue to be seen as authentic and “serious” sources. This is why WWF Nepal tries to reach people through both old and new media, even as it shifts its focus increasingly to the digital arena.

Outreach campaigns remain the group’s gold standard for mobilizing local communities. This work is primarily carried out by WWF Nepal’s conservation program teams, who have introduced various packages designed to support the livelihoods of people living in proximity to wildlife while they keep the rhinos and tigers protected. At the same time, communicators collect stories and carry out community outreach events and campaigns.

In April 2017 Shuklaphanta, Nepal’s youngest national park, received a greater one-horned rhino. Thirty elephants and about 250 people were involved in the translocation operations between Chitwan National Park and Shuklaphanta National Park. Image courtesy of WWF Nepal.

Relationships and influence

In Nepal, says Lilli Pukka, a Finnish communications consultant working for WWF Nepal, “conservation communication is strongly linked with building relationships in the field.”

“[H]aving personal connection and interaction with stakeholders, especially with local communities, is vital,” she tells Mongabay in an email, adding that face-to-face discussions are especially important in a country like Nepal, where there are lot of encounters with wildlife and so it is critical that people feel like they are part of the solution.

Another unique aspect of Nepal is how widespread conservation efforts are, with everyone from grassroots organizations to the prime minister involved. “Conservation cannot be done in isolation, and Nepal has been able to bring every stakeholder around the same table,” Pukka says.

Pukka wrote her master’s thesis about the role of communications in protecting endangered species. According to her research, the salient factors that affect conservation in Nepal are raising awareness, changing behavior, engaging stakeholders, and lobbying. “All of them are strongly linked together … and influence each other,” she says.

Rhino conservation in Chitwan, the area where in 1963 authorities established Nepal’s first rhino sanctuary, is a showcase of communication good practices, Pukka says.

“[A]wareness and engagement levels are high, people are participating in conservation activities from their childhood and youth, and communities are not [just] engaging in conservation because someone is telling them to but because they see the benefit conservation brings to them and want to take ownership of it,” she says.

“[T]he success story of rhino conservation in Chitwan has been possible through constant communication efforts, coordination, and dialogues between all stakeholders,” who have been working toward a mutual goal for more than 40 years, Pukka says.

A photo of a one-horned rhino mother and calf taken in April 2015 during Nepal’s rhino count in Chitwan National Park. According to the census, there were 645 rhinos in Nepal’s Terai Arc landscape as of 2015, up from a low of around 100 in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Sumanth Kuduvalli / Felis Creations / WWF

Communicating by listening

Conservation in Nepal during the 1960s and 1970s took a strict, top-down approach, similar to conservation practices around the world at the time, Pukka says. That meant keeping people outside of certain areas and focusing solely on protecting nature. Local communities were not included in these conservation efforts, and poaching did not decrease.

What really jump-started Nepal’s success was a change of perspective and the adoption of inclusive programs such as community-based conservation projects. “Nowadays, local communities benefit from conservation in different ways,” Pukka says, “for example, alternative livelihoods and skill development are increasing, and around 50 percent of the income of national parks is steered to community development activities.”

Communication played an important role in this shift from strict conservation to community-based conservation, where sometimes the best ideas come from local people. In the case of Chitwan, this includes the idea for overnight accommodation for tourists in watchtowers inside the jungle.

“Additionally, when it comes to … awareness raising within youth, young people engaged in conservation usually know best how to reach their peers,” Pukka says, adding that her research also highlighted that local community members can be more effective communicators than authorities or representatives of an organization, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like human-wildlife conflict.

WWF Nepal introduced Asia’s biggest wildlife quiz, Wild Wisdom Quiz (WWQ), in Nepal on the occasion of World Environment Day 2017. Began in 2008 by WWF India, the aim of WWQ is to engage with school children and increase their knowledge of issues pertaining to biodiversity conservation. Image courtesy of WWF Nepal.

This is an important point, says Jesper Falkheimer, a professor of strategic communications at Lund University in Sweden. Communication, he says, is fundamentally about adapting to what is going on in a specific context, hence communication specialists must be aware of cultural and societal issues. “Many people think that communication is about information — which means that the main focus is in information dissemination and channels,” he says. “But the ability to listen is actually more important — and then communicate with stakeholders in an interactive way to create engagement and change.”

Falkheimer says strategic communication — which he defines as the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission — can be used for persuasion and to make an impact in a wide range of issues. In today’s world, that ability to move minds through communications is “probably more important than ever,” he says.

This applies to conservation, an evolving practice that does not take place in a void, but rather takes into account myriad of institutions, professionals, law enforcement agencies, and local communities.

Pukka’s research also indicates that communication should not be seen as a one-way street where an organization tries to manage its stakeholders by listing do’s and don’ts. The most effective ways to use communication in conservation, she says, include “bottom-up approaches, engaging audiences through dialogues, finding mutual solutions, and treating every stakeholder as an equal.”

“This is something that truly got highlighted in my study, and that could be something that other countries could learn from Nepal’s conservation strategy; bringing ownership to people and letting them be part of the planning and implementation process,” Pukka says.

The Earth Hour celebration in Nepal this year saw the participation of thousands of youth who gathered at Jawalakhel Grounds. The event showcased some of Nepal’s leading artists including 1974 AD, The Shadows, Sabin Rai and the Pharaoh, Swoopna Suman and The Elements. Image courtesy of WWF Nepal

Banner image: Greater one-horned rhino and calf, courtesy of Christy Williams/WWF.

Correction: The date in which Chitwan was established as a rhino sanctuary has been corrected. Chitwan was established as a sanctuary in 1965 and as a national park in 1973.

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