- All organizations love media attention, and wildlife conservation groups are no different.
- Media attention often helps conservation practice, but it can also achieve the opposite.
- In their quest to be short and sensational, media often distort conservation messages. Even worse, unintended side effects from media exposure can increase the threats to species.
- This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the author.
All organizations love media attention, and wildlife conservation groups are no different. Both the positive and negative stories promote conservation work. The more eye-catching the headline and the cuddlier the species the better. It all draws attention to the plight of threatened wildlife.
Media attention often helps conservation practice, but it can also achieve the opposite. In their quest to be short and sensational, media often distort conservation messages. Even worse, unintended side effects from media exposure can increase the threats to species. Negative impacts of media attention on wildlife conservation are surprisingly common but often overlooked. Conservation organizations need to improve how they use the media to benefit wildlife conservation.
Recently Professor Serge Wich of the Liverpool John Moores University published a paper on Sumatran orangutans. The study indicated that the population was twice as large as previously estimated. This was not because populations had increased. Instead, the latest surveys had covered areas not visited in previous surveys. Wich commented that “we explained these caveats clearly in the paper, but newspapers nevertheless ran the story that Sumatran orangutans had doubled.”
Such media distortion of a particular topic carries risk. The Indonesian government authorities responsible for orangutan conservation need to plan and budget conservation action. If the media suggest that all is well with the Sumatran orangutan, then why bother making a bigger conservation effort?
Improved conservation for Sumatran orangutans is, however, desperately needed. The species is in rapid decline, not on an increase. Some of the most important lowland forest habitats, such as the coastal Tripa swamps on the island of Sumatra, have been illegally cleared for oil palm development. Where some 3,000 orangutans once roamed, now few remain.
The oil palm industry, one of the orangutan’s main threats, also smartly uses the distorted scientific findings. Following the publication of the population estimates, graphs were apparently circulated that show a positive relationship between planted oil palm and numbers of orangutans. This is nonsense, but such nonsense can be very powerful in influencing public opinion and political decisions in a country that strongly supports agricultural development.
Another example of potentially harmful conservation news is the recent announcement that the world’s tiger population is much larger than previously thought. As reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Global Tiger Forum, the global population of tigers in the wild has shown a significant increase in the past few years.
As reported on Mongabay, four tiger experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Oxford think the news is, however, incorrect, and call WWF’s findings “scientifically unconvincing”. Tigers are hard to count, they have lost around 40 percent of their habitat in the last decade and poaching of tigers too has increased in recent years. How likely is it that tigers really are on the increase, and what message does it send to both poachers and to those enforcing anti-poaching laws when such an increase is announced? Does the “good” news benefit or harm conservation outcomes?
Conservation success depends on public support for conservation action, funding and policy support for conservation management. Media attention to threatened species is a key tool for raising public awareness. Furthermore, it helps to put pressure on politicians to change their policies, and to finance conservation organizations.
But we have to be so careful. How certain are we, as conservation practitioners, that media attention is helping and not hindering us? In 2013, WWF announced the rediscovery of rhinoceroses in Indonesian Borneo, where they had been declared extinct since the 1970s. This sounds like positive news, but the announcement was a strategic mistake. It drew poachers into the area where no one thought rhinos existed, and so far one of these critically endangered rhinos has died because of an infected snare wound related to increased poaching efforts.
Similar stories originate from the Philippines where, according to the late William Oliver, a long-time Philippine-based conservation practitioner, the description of new species such as the Endangered Prince Alfred’s Spotted Deer resulted in high demand from local politicians and other societal elites. Following the new species announcements, many wanted a few of these previously ignored deer in their private zoological collections.
Conservation is a crisis discipline. We desperately need more societal support for our conservation work. Social and other media are becoming increasing helpful in raising this support, and also in generating a significant part of conservation funding. We are, however, in a “war”-like situation in which our “enemy” is a lot more powerful than the conservation movement. This means that we need to be smart in how we handle information. Just like an army in a battle situation doesn’t go about advertising troop positions, we should learn to be much more selective about which information is publicized and how.
Conservation organizations need to develop their own internal procedures to identify risks of publishing certain types of information and consider the risks of information distortion by media. It is so tempting to hype our “heroic” conservation efforts to save the world’s biodiversity. Add a photo of a baby orangutan or tiger and the global media will lap it up. But we need to be smarter than that and sometimes shut up if this benefits our ultimate conservation goals or prevents harmful impacts.
Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative. Follow him on Twitter at emeijaard.