Numerous conservation activities in Africa have been of little effect. In this study, we investigate socio-economic trade-offs that might have been overlooked, yet may undermine conservation action in discret pathways. Data was collected in three study sites with fragile forest ecosystems in south-eastern Kenya, through locally adapted structured surveys and semi-structured expert guides. These analyses are drawn from 827 structured surveys and 37 expert interviews, which were done during 2016–2018. We found general coherences between age, gender, ethnicity, indigenous knowledge, formal education, and higher incomes, which shapes forest conservation attitudes. Indigenous knowledge is marginal, and most people with formal education in the rural setting are likely to be young without legal land rights or among the minority with off-farm employment. The reluctance to address historical land injustices and inequitable sharing of entitlements and management authority overrides positive attitudes and intentions towards forest conservation in all three study sites. However, we found considerable discrepancies among the three study sites. For Arabuko Sokoke forest, the awareness of forest conservation was relatively low when compared with the other two study sites. Forests play a major role against the backdrop of resource use in all three regions. But, different ecosystem services are used among the three study sites. For environmental education and communication, internet plays a comparatively minor role. Strategies to preserve forest differ among the three study sites: Reforestation is proposed in cloud forests of Taita Hills and riparian forests, whereas off-farm employment and alternative income sources plays a major role in Arabuko Sokoke forest. Our findings underline that locally specific conservation management is needed to conduct efficient nature conservation, particularly in countries with very heterogeneous ethnicities and environments.