In spite of significant investment, community-based conservation often suffers from a lack of appropriate design. In this study, drawing on 86 interviews around six national parks in tropical Africa, we analyse the perceptions of different stakeholders (e.g. governmental officials, non-governmental organization staff and researchers) regarding community participation. Our results mainly reveal the absence of a clear and shared definition of community participation. While 67% of the participants defined community participation as a community's support of nature protection (low empowerment) and/or as its participation in conservation implementation (medium empowerment), 28% mentioned that the community should also participate in decision-making (high empowerment). Our study shows that participants with no university degree, belonging to governmental organizations and/or employed as workers tend to propose a lower level of empowerment, while those educated to a postgraduate level, belonging to research institutes and/or employed as researchers propose higher degrees of empowerment. Our study mainly suggests that the different degrees of empowerment proposed by the stakeholders depend on their relation to the space of conservation and their daily connection to practical management as drivers of the inclusion or exclusion of local communities in conservation decision-making. To properly design and implement community-based conservation, conservation actors above all must share a common definition of the concept.