Social Landscape Mapping: Ensuring community partnerships for tiger conservation
© Lauren Simmonds / WWF


Global tiger populations are increasing after decades of decline, but some countries with increasing tiger numbers are seeing human-tiger conflict increase too. For successful tiger recovery, communities must be at the heart of conservation efforts, and in order to do this we need to know much more about the communities who live in tiger landscapes.

Smriti Dahal is WWF’s Tigers Alive conflict and communities lead and at the core of her work is a People Centred Tiger Conservation approach that aims to answer the question, how do we work with communities as partners in long-term tiger conservation? 

We sat down with Smriti to ask her about a critical stage of the People Centred Tiger Conservation approach - social landscape mapping, and how it’s key to creating trusted partnerships with communities.

Smriti Dahal visiting communities living near tigers in Banke National Park, Nepal.
© Shikhar Bhattarai / Fuzz Factory Productions / WWF


Explain to us what a social landscape map is?

First let's think of an ecological map; conservation organisations like WWF have a good understanding of where tigers are, where forests are located, what prey is available and the threats to wildlife in a landscape. When we build a social landscape map it’s the same principle, but people are the focus. Communities are diverse and made up of a range of different ages, genders, norms, influences, informal and formal social networks, aspirations, values, and experiences and it’s these aspects that we literally map on paper.

Social landscape mapping workshop with the Kampung Sungai Tiang Community, Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia.
© OA Khairul / WWF


Social landscape mapping is a tool that helps us capture social dynamics and community diversity to understand who and what influences conservation across tiger landscapes. We currently don’t have a good enough understanding of communities in tiger landscapes and through social landscape mapping we hope to change this. 


How do you create a social landscape map?

The most important part of the social landscape mapping process is engaging with communities and hearing their perceptions and experiences. First we identify groups in the community and hold focus group discussions with them to collectively map their social landscape. We might need to have separate focus group discussions with men and women or different ethnic groups to make sure all perceptions are captured. Capturing this range of viewpoints buffers us from  biassed interpretation of results and can help us understand how different segments of the community perceive and experience problems differently.

Women-led focus group from Kampung Sungai Tiang Community participating in a social landscape mapping workshop. Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia.
© Rahana Husin / WWF
A male-led focus group from Kampung Sungai Tiang Community maps natural resources around their land. Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia.
© Lauren Simmonds / WWF


During these focus group discussions the community creates a map that reflects their diverse make up, helping us understand who makes up the community. Examples of things the community maps are; demographics that are present, how close communities are to the forest, whether they depend on natural resources, if there are any marginal groups and, if so, who are they, who are the community influencers, and are there internal or external local leaders. During this process it’s also critical to understand the power dynamics and social structures within the community, and how information and resources flow, as well as what external factors influence values and behaviours of the community. 


What do you think is the most important thing about social landscape mapping?

Traditionally conservation has been focused on mapping things such as habitat, prey, water sources and threats to wildlife. Tiger conservation is so much more than protecting natural resources. It’s also about the people who live and depend on these landscapes and the social dynamics between these different groups of people. Together, they influence support or opposition for tiger conservation and understanding this through social landscape mapping is vital. 

It excites me that we are now sitting down with communities and learning from them about their social structures, their values, aspirations, cultural norms in relation to tigers, and gaining insights into how they perceive tigers and tiger conservation. Co-designing conservation strategies with communities is the way conservation should work and this is why I’m passionate about my work.

Social landscape mapping will help us understand the make up of a community and their attitudes towards tigers. But what next?

Just as we create and use ecological maps to assess the potential of tiger recovery, the information we get from social landscape maps will help us design targeted conservation interventions to increase the social tolerance for tigers where it is low, and develop stronger long-term partnerships in areas where tolerance is high. The mapping will also point to what interventions the communities find beneficial and what could increase their wellbeing. Some examples of this could be establishment or improvement of tourism or fisheries.

In South Asia where tiger populations are increasing we need to scale up social landscape mapping to better understand the perceived risks communities have of tigers and assess their tolerance levels to better inform conservation efforts. Ensuring human-tiger conflict is managed effectively must be a priority for governments and conservation organisations.

Tiger (Panthera tigris) recorded on camera trap in Malaysia’s Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. Malaysia’s tiger population is decreasing and estimates suggest there to be fewer than 150 tigers left in the country.
© WWF-Malaysia


In Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, where tiger numbers are decreasing, more effort is needed to focus on how community values and behaviours influence tiger recovery. We need to prioritise identifying key barriers to tiger recovery and design more effective strategies in partnership with communities that support tiger recovery in the region. These partnerships need to benefit the community too, and one key thing social landscape mapping will help us identify are community aspirations for the future. These aspirations need to be met alongside the conservation goals to ensure long-term community support and successful tiger recovery.

Going forward with the help of social landscape mapping we will better understand community perceptions about conservation, wildlife and how the social aspect of these tiger landscapes impact conservation. This information will help us design more effective and sustainable conservation strategies that benefit both people and wildlife in the long run. Co-designing conservation strategies together with communities will help them to maximise the conservation benefits and minimise conservation costs. Building trust, understanding community diversity, priorities, power dynamics and allowing the long timescales necessary to develop effective partnerships with communities is essential to successful conservation outcomes in our tiger landscapes.

Part two in a series on People Centred Tiger Conservation. Find part one here.