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My Conversation with Amy Dickman

It’s the latest episode of Science+Story the Podcast— and a fantastic conversation with this lion conservation scientist on getting death threats from trophy hunting opponents (including celebrities) and the false choice between evidence & emotion in science communication.

You’ll learn why Amy thinks wildlife conservation in Africa can’t be self-sustaining within the next 20 years; how she set up a conservation project among Tanzania natives who’d felt burned by previous conservation projects (and couldn’t really understand what an unmarried white woman was doing there); and how big NGOs are frightened to share the bad news and complexity of conservation (to her chagrin).

This conversation was prompted by my January piece on Amy and other scientists wondering why the public would rather listen to celebrities than to scientists like themselves and Africans on the benefits of trophy hunting for conversation, and Amy’s response piece, which I published two weeks ago. The exchange, Amy told me, has pushed her to reconsider the place of emotion in communicating her science:

But I think we’ve probably misstepped in then getting polarized to saying this is evidence vs. emotion, where it’s not the case. We come into this with huge amounts of emotion, because why else would we spend decades in the field, living in horribly dangerous conditions often, away from our families – why would we go through that if we weren’t deeply emotionally connected to these species and have the passion for conservation? So I think you’re completely right – we do ourselves a disservice in trying to sort of pass out that emotion, trying not to share it. Because sometimes it’s seen as just not very professional. We shouldn’t get upset. Why should I cry over lions? You know, that’s a data point. But of course I cry over the lions, because, you know, it matters. It really affects me when I see that. And that one where the lioness died, and she’d clearly recently given birth, and she had, you know, her legs cut off and the carcass was just out there … I just kept thinking – I remember that night thinking where are those cubs? Like, just thinking about them being out there and being totally helpless to help them. And it’s very emotional. You know, we do care deeply about these animals and we care deeply about the communities that live alongside them. So I think we are probably failing to communicate that well. And it’s been interesting to see, there has been such a positive response to that story. Because I think people like to see the human side of scientists and conservationists, and often we ourselves hide it away too much probably.

An episode for interesting times.