Meeting global and regional environmental targets is challenging, given the multiplicity of stakeholders and their diverse and often competing policy agendas and objectives. Relatively few studies have sought to systematically analyse the progress, or lack thereof, of institutionally complex and diffuse projects. Here we analyse one such project, which aims to protect and restore a critical landscape corridor for tigers Panthera tigris in north-western India, using a temporal–analytic framework that integrates ecological information on species population status and spatial connectivity modelling with a systematic examination of the decision-making process. We find that even with adequate ecological knowledge the tiger population is on the verge of local extinction because of weak institutional support, poor adaptive planning and ineffective leadership in a complex political arena, which has led to delays in conservation action. From the outset the conservation agencies and NGOs that were the primary drivers of the project lacked awareness of the political idiosyncrasies of coordinating the actions of disparate agencies within the decision-making process. To secure better future environmental outcomes we recommend the adoption of an improved project appraisal methodology that explicitly encompasses an evaluation of organizational incentives, to determine political buy-in, including alignment with organizational objectives and funding availability.