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“Simon Says” – Is conservation a good or bad news story?

January 5, 2017

whatliesunder-ferdi-rizkiyantoA recent article in The Guardian has sparked an interesting debate about how conservation messages should be spread.  The article entitled, ‘Planet Earth II ‘a disaster for world’s wildlife’ says rival nature producer’ reports on comments from a BBC Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games.  Martin’s concern, as presented, is that the hugely popular Planet Earth II series is, “an escapist wildlife fantasy” which does not show the damage to wildlife and our environment by humans.

Whilst there has been quite a backlash to this view and perceived criticism of the series, it is perfectly reasonable to debate how conservation is presented, though “a disaster for wildlife” is perhaps overstating matters somewhat.  In this blog I wanted to share with you some of the fundamental issues we grapple with in conservation that may not be obvious to the observer.  This is certainly one of those, i.e. should conservation be presented as good or bad news?

Good and bad

There are numerous examples of how this plays out in the media.  Elephants are perhaps the most obvious.  Few creatures are as impressive, majestic and iconic of conservation challenges.  As a conservation issue they are challenging.  Their numbers are diminishing, despite mammoth efforts, because of poaching and because they are big, hungry and require space.   Consequently all we tend to see are pictures of elephants rampaging through crops chased by angry villagers, or carcasses with their tusks removed.  In focussing on the problems we perhaps forget what a sensational creature the elephant is, its complex social structure, and its benefit to the ecology and economics of the regions in which it lives.

There are many other similar stories about wildlife or the environment with a positive or negative perspective: tigers and tiger poaching; whales and whaling; fish and commercial fishing; rainforest ecology and degradation; climate change and economic effects; coral reef beauty and pollution, to name just a few.


In all those cases and many others, including very often in Dorset Wildlife Trust’s work, we need to think carefully about how we present a conservation challenge.  This is often determined by who the target group is and what we think is likely to motivate that group to take the action required.  Even here though opinion is frequently divided because it is a central tenant of communications that an imperative or a jeopardy is essential to strike a message home.  True enough, if everything is perfect then why should action be needed, be that new laws, increased enforcement, fundraising, or political pressure?

My wife for instance often complains that all she hears from conservationists is that they are whining about problems and how guilty we should all feel.

Showing the wonder of nature

Winning the hearts and minds of people is a complex and difficult task.  This is why corporations spend millions on advertising and brand recognition.  Different people are motivated by different messages.  Some are persuaded more by logical, factual arguments, whilst others are more passionate or emotional and driven by messages to the heart.

The conservation movement as a whole has failed to engage enough people to support nature and the natural environment.  We construct clever, scientific, factual cases based on clear imperatives, but does that always work?  Clearly not.  Our own government for example has shown that at the political level decisions are not evidence-based.  Even the US election and the Brexit referendum showed that people commonly voted from the heart rather than as a result of factual information.

There is a place for awe and wonder to show people what a wonderful natural world we live in and to inspire love and support for it.  I like to think of myself as a logical scientist, but actually if I look back, much of what inspired me to a career in conservation was a love of the sea (specifically Poole Harbour), visits to the zoo, and stories from Hans & Lotte Haas, Jacques Cousteau, and most importantly of all, Sir David Attenborough.

The Planet Earth II series with its stunning photography, animal-based perspectives and engaging storylines has spellbound 12 million viewers.  Far more than the memberships of the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust together.  There is a place for such inspiration – to motivate a new generation that will hopefully do better than we did, and to engage the rest of us to take action when the opportunity arises.  I believe that to preach in such a series about the damage humans are doing and the perilous state of nature would have turned off many of the audience and reduced the pleasure of the experience.

A balanced approach

Sir David’s approach throughout his career seems to have been one of presenting a positive and inspiring picture.  We all like to be part of success and few more so than politicians who make so many important decisions effecting wildlife.  It was Sir David Attenborough that President Obama chose for that very public advice.  I though admire Martin Hughes-Games for bravely raising this issue as it needs to be discussed.

In DWT, as in many conservation organisations, we have then thought this through.  We keep our arguments rational, logical and evidence-based to maintain our credibility.  We constantly seek to present a solution if we raise a problem.  We need to show the imperative of the work we do in order to show the importance of taking action. However, we also need to have in place a fundamental love of wildlife and the environment for all of the above to work.  Without that bedrock of awe and wonder we risk not engaging people as they need to be engaged – through their heart.

By Dr Simon Cripps – DWT Chief Executive

Photos: (Top) What lies under © Ferdi Rizkiyanto


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