Amy Dickman: Lions, Celebrities, Hunting & Evidence
- Amy’s bio page as WildCRU research fellow and her bio page as Ruaha Carnivore Project founder
- The Ruaha Carnivore Project – this is the organization Amy set up in 2009 under a fellowship at Oxford
- Lion Landscapes – the organization Amy mentions she’s working with to scale up the work of Ruaha Carnivore Project and explore more novel financial mechanisms
- The storybook Amy created for the children of the Barabaig tribe
- Lion Guardians – the organization Amy worked with to develop a warrior engagement program focused on helping build status and wealth through conservation vs. lion killing
- Amy’s profile in National Geographic
- More details on the community benefit programs Amy developed, ranging from improving literacy to healthcare access, to help empower the local community and incentivize conservation
- Celebrities vs. Scientists – my piece on trophy hunting; and Amy’s Dickman’s response to the piece
- Here’s the review Amy references that came out about hunting globally
- Wiki page on the killing of Cecil the lion that sparked international outrage
- Here’s Amy and her colleagues’ 2019 letter to science titled “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity”
- Here’s the Cecil Act – legislation in the U.S. aimed at restricting imports of endangered species
- Article in the Guardian that quotes Amy about the verbal attacks she received for authoring the 2019 letter to science
- The petition that was signed by over a million people that was sent to the U.K. government to ban trophy hunting imports
BOB: We’re recording. Amy Dickman, welcome to Science + Story. Pleasure to have you.
AMY: Thank you very much for having me on.
BOB: First question, let’s talk about your research, which as I understand it focuses mainly on understanding the drivers of conflict between human and large wild carnivores, mainly lions in human-dominated landscapes. So what have you discovered to be some of the most effective ways to promote co-existence between these two communities, humans and lions, humans and carnivores, in Africa?
AMY: Yeah, well, one of the sort of ways that we use to approach this is going beyond the traditional method of just looking at people complaining about the costs that these animals have on their livelihoods and they’re really very significant. Living with large carnivores many people think it sounds amazing, it sounds glamorous. If you are a rural African with no way of protecting yourself then actually it can be really difficult, very dangerous. You know, people are very fearful of living with these animals, and for good reason. And so an awful lot of conflict-mitigation approaches have traditionally looked at just the costs that those wildlife impose on people and how do they reduce those costs? So it’s things like protecting people’s livestock, reinforcing enclosures, sometimes guarding dogs, etc. And so we started in that way, and those things are successful and they’re useful. But it’s a little bit like saying to people, you know, you’ve got a gang of marauding violent criminals who are wandering up and down your street, and we’re going to give you a better burglar alarm. That doesn’t make people feel better about their area and their environment, the presence of those people. So we went on to develop much more sort of approaches looking at how to give people tangible benefits from living with wildlife. And that was working for a few years, but we realized them the problem was that people weren’t linking the benefits directly to the wildlife; they were linking them to the presence of the project. So one of the big ways that we’ve started work in that is something called “community camera-trapping,” where the communities themselves monitor wildlife, and it’s the presence of that wildlife that determines the community benefits they get, and it’s all very community-driven. So for us it’s really making that link between wildlife being on their land and them having the benefits – the development benefits that come from that conservation.
BOB: And – fascinated as you’re talking about this. Describe an experiment that you set up to determine how you would prove that value would drive behavior.
AMY: A lot of our work isn’t sort of the traditional sort of experimental approach where you’ve got control villages and you’ve got different people doing different things. It’s very much listening to people, and much more sort of a social-science approach I’d say of sitting down and being very inclusive and just hearing their experiences. So we went a fairly traditional route in this. You know, we did have the bomas, the livestock enclosures, that were reinforced for instance. And then we had matched-pair bomas that were not reinforced. And we would look scientifically the difference between those. We would look at people’s attitudes. But it became very obvious very quickly when you’re talking to people that obviously what they wanted was benefits, what any of us would want from something that imposes costs, benefits to outweigh those costs. And so then when we started working with them it was really sort of put back on the villages to come to us with what they would want. Because I think an awful lot of conservation is externally-imposed and we really need it to be locally-driven, you know, address real local needs. And so it wasn’t really developed in an experimental approach of saying, “This – our data shows this is going to be the (best) way forward.” This is now driven by the perceptions and realities of the people we work with saying, “This is what we want,” and we help them develop this system using the camera traps to record wildlife on their land. And we tried it with just one village in the very beginning, and then we tried it with a group of four villages. Because we found that the elements of competition, of villages competing against each other for the points they were getting for these animals in the camera traps was quite a good way of engaging people in the whole idea of the program. So it was something that evolved over time and fairly organically with them rather than being a classic experimental approach.
BOB: So you’re not just a conservation scientist but you establish the Ruaha Carnivore Project. What inspired you to establish the project and how is the work that you and your team in the project doing different from what other organizations and conservationists might be doing in approaching wildlife conservation in Africa?
AMY: Well, I think I’ve always been passionate about big cats literally for as long as I can remember. From being a child growing up in Southwest England with zero experience of them at all, I always wanted to get out to Africa. Had this real passion for East Africa in particular. And I was lucky enough to spend some time just after my undergraduate in Namibia, and then moved on from that out to Tanzania where I worked with Sarah Durant at the Serengeti Cheetah Project. I went out to see their project, and it was literally as a childhood dream what you wanted as a biologist. You know, this amazing landscape(s), you know, wildlife right there. And she was the one actually, when I was really excited about working in the Serengeti, that said, “You should work down in Ruaha, because Ruaha has immense needs and no one’s focused on being down there.” And so I went down pretty much pushed by her, almost physically–because I didn’t want to leave the loveliness of (the) Serengeti–and headed down, and found out that it was really true, that (inaudible) spectacularly important for wildlife and for carnivores, but there was immense conflict going on. So we worked to set up the Ruaha Carnivore Project under a fellowship at Oxford. And it was one that is the first dedicated carnivore research project down there. It was building on a lot of experience, and evidence, and things that have been developed by other people. But I think probably what makes it innovative to some extent is these methods, things like the performance payments that we’re developing, where it’s really villages managing their own wildlife, and then getting rewarded for conserving them in a very direct way. So that’s taken it to a step that goes beyond the traditional conflict-mitigation models. And it’s also highly, highly collaborative. We’re very much – this isn’t about egos and logos; this is about us working together in partnership with other organizations. We haven’t got time to be proprietorial and keep our – any solutions we find to ourselves. You know, we’re very much into scaling up and trying to work in partnership across other organizations as well.
BOB: Go into the funding a little bit for the project. So is this something – are these projects self-sustaining? Are they projects that – or are they donor-dependent still?
AMY: Yeah. So these are all donor-dependent, and it’s something that we come across a lot in grant applications, in particular in talks. And people always say, you know, “How is this work sustainable beyond the life of the grant, or sustainable just in general?” And I think this is something that we need to have a very honest conversation about in conservation in general. Because at the moment all the costs of conservation are born by rural local people, often the least able to deal with them. And all the benefits of conservation–you know, knowing that big scary animals exist somewhere far away, going on safari, whatever–those tend to be accrued internationally. And including a lot of the economics from that tend to be accrued internationally. So it’s a very unfair system at the moment. And so we’re really looking at sort of trying to address that in the short-term by saying the international – the global community has to pay for the presence of this wildlife if they actually want it to exist long-term. We can’t expect in the next 20 years–which is probably what we’ve got to make a real – to really decide the future for lion conservation, say–we are going to have to have the international community pay for the presence of these animals while we can develop longer-term, more sustainable funding mechanisms on the ground. And we’re certainly looking at those. We are now merging our work under Ruaha Carnivore Project with Lion Landscapes, a colleague of mine I work very closely with. So we’re coming together to scale up our work to collaborate across different sites. And under that we’re looking at novel financial mechanisms, things like lion carbon for example, where villages will be paid carbon credits from the international markets to, you know, maintain habitat, to have those communities there owning, and verifying, and offsetting carbon in those landscapes, which is then a long-term financial sort of input that they can have, and a significant one as well. But I think ultimately we do need the international community to pay in some way. And I think it’s been very telling during the COVID-19 pandemic is that people have often really leant towards the fact that you should have self-sustaining – perceived self-sustaining models, things like tourism. But all of those models fell away during the pandemic, because they’re all reliant on external uses, whereas we found that the philanthropic- and the donor-driven model actually continued relatively well. We’ve managed to keep our programs going through the whole time. And so I think we need a little bit of a rejigging of what we think is sustainable and what is reliable in these kinds of mechanisms, and obviously to develop new ones as well that can deal with these bigger challenges as we go forward.
BOB: From young children in villages near Ruaha National Park to government leaders, you’ve got a wide range of what we call here, lovingly, “stakeholders” in these projects. What have you found to be some of the most effective ways to communicate your research and the initiatives that you’re building upon that research? How do you tailor your communication to these different but equally important audiences?
AMY: Well, I think that each one of them is trying to work out what resonates with them, what’s important for them, and trying to put them at the very center of it. So for instance, with school children we found that they didn’t have any reading materials or storybooks about conservation, so it was very tangential to them. And even more the Barabaig, the tribe that we work with that do most of the lion-killing, when we’re finding a bit of pushback to some of the conservation work, a lot of that was about they were feeling underrepresented. They weren’t represented in these narratives. They didn’t feel that they were having a place and they were worried that their very presence was being edged out by these other influences. So we worked with them extensively to make this storybook that was around a Barabaig tribe, and it represented the Barabaig in this storybook. And it’s written in their local language, as well as it’s in English. And it seems such a tiny thing, but for them to see working with us and producing something that represented them in this book was really important. Because then that is the narrative going out to schools, that’s the material going out there. It isn’t externally-imposed; it is developed locally. So I think that’s really key in the schools with the warriors, and simultaneously dealing with the warriors themselves. They were doing a huge amount of lion-killing in this area. And it was really vital–for the first two years of the project they wouldn’t speak to us at all. They had a preconception that we were going to come in, get them in trouble, tell them off for lion-killing. And it was really difficult to engage with them in any way. And actually it was only when we put a solar panel up so that we could charge our laptops they finally turned up so that they could charge their mobile phones, which just made me laugh. But they turned up. And then finally it was talking to them about what they got from lion-killing – rather than judging them for lion-killing, what was it they got? And for them it was status, it was wealth. So we worked with Lion Guardians, another organization, to develop a warrior-engagement program to deliver what they wanted. And they can now get status and wealth through conservation rather than the lion-killing. So again, it speaks to their needs. And I think talking about the governments – simultaneously what does the government want? The government wants to rightly be recognized in this case as a leader in lion conservation. Tanzania has 40% (perhaps) of the world’s lions. So we’ve worked with a group called “Wild Aid” that did these great little videos that showcased Tanzanians taking about lions, talking about it being their heritage. And then that was shown back to government stakeholders, you know, shown up in Dar es Salaam, just showing that – making this about pride and heritage in Tanzania. So in each case I think it’s understanding why people – what is the point that they would want to get involved in conservation, and seeing how we can work with them to deliver something that benefits both groups.
BOB: So you’re a National Geographic explorer, and there was a piece in Nat Geo that profiled you and dealt in part about the beginning of the project and how you were perceived as a white woman in these local communities. Talk about that a bit. They were very concerned about you at first, right?
AMY: Yes, they were. And I often get asked what it was like to be a white woman. I set up the project myself, and two Tanzanians – two Tanzanian men under a tree in a village. So it was really – we were really quite far out in the bush, and it was just us. And so we were very isolated out there. But when people ask about being a woman the primary thing that set me apart obviously was being white. That was – far outweighed the woman element. And actually I discovered over time that they didn’t really see me as a woman, because I wasn’t – I didn’t have any of the womanly characteristics they would expect. My hair was too long, I wore trousers, I drove cars, I told men what to do. None of these things were female in any way. So I think I was seen as very genderless to them. So the female aspect didn’t come in too much to it, although then over time I had at one point a group of Maasai women turned up to the camp and they were very concerned, and they wanted to talk about something. They said, “We’re worried that you don’t have a husband. Why don’t you have a husband?” And I thought, God, that’s a long story [LAUGHTER] and too complicated to get into here. But they said, “Is it because you don’t have cattle? Because we think that’s why. And we’ve had a little (whip ’round) and we can get you some cows.” So it was such a nice thing of them to try to understand why this was, and get me the cattle, and get me a husband. And each over time–even though I politely declined the cattle and the husband that might come with it–over time the more I showed more feminine traits… So for instance, when I came back to the project and I’d got married that was a great thing, because, you know, I was actually a “proper woman.” And even more so when I came back and I was pregnant, then it really – I sensed a real change in the perception then. Because this is the first time we had something that really bonded us as women, that we all went through together. And it was the same whatever – obviously wherever you come from it’s the same kind of experiences. So that was really good. And they came and they made me this traditional Barabaig dress I remember with, you know, when I was pregnant. It was just – it was all so lovely that that was something that was quite a bonding experience.
BOB: There’s also an issue of masculinity. And this has been written about before but I wanted your perspective on it. One of the big challenges in shifting the perspective of some of these communities is that it – a boy needs to kill a lion to become a man. How did you work with – have you worked in this project to shift that perspective specifically?
AMY: Definitely. So in our area it wasn’t so much the classic Maasai sort of age ceremony, that rite of passage. This was more–we discovered from the Barabaig, who are a sister tribe to the Maasai–they were doing it more as a way of getting wealth and getting status in the community. So for instance we used to find that every lion pretty much that we found dead in the bush was missing its right front paw, and almost no other body part usually. And we discovered after talking to the warriors that they were cutting off the right front paw and taking a claw as a proof of kill. And they see the man, the warrior who had thrown the first spear was the one who got to wear that as an amulet, and also then got to go around these village households and tell everyone about how brave he’d been. And he would get gifts of cattle from these households. So it was a very important way they said for young men to get wealth in the form of cattle and also status as being seen as this brave, important man. And it was interesting because the women has a significant role in that, because women would come and dance, and women would reward the young man, they would sleep with him. So there was definitely an element where women were rewarding that, even if it wasn’t directly economically in the way that the cattle were. And so when we worked with the communities on developing what else would give them status, you know, it was things like – interesting – they said literacy was a big one, that they could get status through literacy. So all of the warriors in the – what we call the “Lion Defender Program” are now numerate and literate. They learn English, they travel internationally, they learn how to, you know, use a GPS. They learn these new techniques that no one else learns. They obviously get a wage. So that’s the way that they’re getting wealth and they’re getting status. But interestingly it was the women – simultaneously we were working with the women on the benefit programs – the community benefit programs the program was developing. And so that was focused particularly on things like education for the children and healthcare, and particularly giving birth safely. These are the priorities of the women. So we were working at the same time on those. And once particularly we had the community camera-trapping, where the benefits were being tied more precisely to how much wildlife was being concerned – oh my God – conserved on village land, the women actually became more and more active in standing up for conservation, even when the men wanted to go out to hunt. So I remember one instant–we knew nothing about it until afterwards–but these young men were choosing to go out and hunt lions. They were looking for lions or elephants to hunt. And the women of the community got together and they called them back in, and they said, “You are killing the very thing that is enabling our children to go to school and us to give birth safely, and we’re not having it.” So the women put in a ban on lion and elephant hunting in that village, a community-level band.
AMY: And it was amazing to see that they had taken that ownership. We could never do that, it’s not our role. But for them to do that was really, really important. And the power they had in the community to do it shouldn’t be underestimated I think. So the women are not seen as much – they’re a bit quieter. They’re often perceived as not being as powerful but they do have a significant power to make these kinds of decisions.
BOB: Was that – did you understand that before that dynamic happened, or was that a revelation?
AMY: No, it was really a revelation. I mean, we knew that these things technically should happen – if you’re doing one of these boring theory-of-change diagrams for a donor, you know, you would put it maybe as one of the little steps. But you don’t really see it. So to see this sort of fall into place in a way that we wouldn’t have predicted, and for them to have the passion and the power to be able to stand up and say, “This is what needs to happen…” And it caused ructions in the community because the young warriors – some of them said, “Well, we want to go and kill lions. It’s part of who we are,” you know? So they said, “Well, if you – these are basically our house, our rules. If you don’t live by them then you’re not going to get to live in this community with us.” And two of the warriors ended up having to leave for a while until they agreed to come back and to live under these rules.
BOB: Trophy hunting aside, which we’re going to get to in a moment, what – how has your research and the way you communicate it, and the way you communicate with these communities, evolved since you started the project in 2009?
AMY: Well, it’s evolved significantly. Because at the beginning, as I mentioned, for two years literally no one spoke to us at all. I mean, we were completely ignored. So that was a really difficult way of starting. And we had donor funding at that point that we had to spend on something, so it was biasing towards the people who would deal with us. And we knew particularly the Barabaig tribe, who were the ones doing the lion killing, were the least likely to deal with us. So we were very worried that we just wouldn’t be able to deliver, you know, on what we’d set out to do. So the communication over time – I think it’s just been that developing of trust. You know, because even when we first started talking to the warriors and to the wider community there’s a lot of distrust of conservation, and I think rightly so. Conservation has a horrible history of being imposed on people, of ignoring human rights, of doing all of these things. And seeing yet another white person come in and – it must just make people want to just think, “Not this again,” you know? So I think we have really, really tried to work very hard to build this Tanzanian team and to make it very much about listening to them and delivering for them through conservation, and saying as much as possible we will be there long-term. This isn’t kind of just a PhD project coming in and going out again with data never to be seen again. So the communication and showing their voices, you know, as much as possible, getting them to whatever they want to do. Some of them want to, you know, be better in terms of having further education or having career advancement. And for others it’s going and learning from other communities and becoming really key parts in developing and driving these initiatives. So for instance now if we are talking about our community camera-trapping program to colleagues in Mozambique we will send, you know, the Tanzanians who are doing it and developing it to Mozambique. It’s not me going to Mozambique and talking about it. Because the authentic-ness really comes from having those people who develop it on the ground being the ones to share those lessons. So, yeah, I just think we’ve tried to make the communication broad and inclusive because that is the only way that we can really progress.
BOB: Focusing now on trophy hunting, which brought us together… That’s the pretext, but I’m glad that we’ve met and that I was able to publish your piece in response to a piece that I had written. As I understand it there are at least two arguments for the role of well-regulated trophy hunting supporting the conservation of endangered wildlife in Africa. One, it helps fund conservation – it can help fund conservation. And two, when hunting is banned in a place conservation efforts seem to give way to less-helpful activities such as poaching and habitat conversion. So this is a large question, but walk me through – walk us through some of the science behind these arguments, and how strong is the evidence?
AMY: Right. So I think one of the sort of arguments that’s really central in my perception of it, but often gets ignored, and even wasn’t really clearly sort of enunciated there, is the habitat protection, the direct habitat protection that trophy hunting offers. So somewhere around potentially 1.4 million square kilometers of land in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the estimates that Peter Lindsey did, is set aside for trophy hunting. So that is bigger than the amount of area set aside for national parks. And I think if you said to people, “What’s the benefit of national parks?” people would say, “Well, you know, it protects land for wildlife.” That’s – and it’s – but people don’t seem to say that when you talk about trophy hunting. But that is to me the key benefit of that land, and we know that the primary driver of biodiversity loss, let alone things like lion decline, is the land conversion. So if that activity is providing an economic incentive to maintain that land against those bigger threats of agricultural conversion and things like that, then it’s something that we should be very, very cautious before undermining or removing. Because otherwise if you take it away without a better alternative already to secure that habitat, you will absolutely end up with more… You know, land doesn’t lie vacant in Africa for very long. You will end up with people of course wanting to use it for agriculture, for pastoralism, for settlement, for mining. And all of those things are likely to be far more damaging for wildlife because they don’t have any incentive to maintain big dangerous animals and intact habitats. So in terms of the strength of the evidence there was a review out recently looking at global hunting. And it said, you know, basically it’s hugely diverse, as you’d expect. I mean, hunting takes place in every context, from stags in Scotland, to lions in Tanzania, the sport fishing. There’s so much diversity. And those are just the ones where sport is an element. There’s meat hunting. There’s a huge amount of diversity of hunting. So it’s unsurprising that across that whole diversity the strength of the evidence is very variable. And in some places we’ve seen that hunting can be poorly regulated, it can have a damaging impact on the population. It’s been seen particularly for lions in (Hwange) – around that (Hwange) National Park, which is where Cecil was killed and what sparked a lot of the international sort of understanding and interest in this topic. And so that revealed that the quotas were too high, that the males weren’t able to stay long enough to recruit cubs into the populations, and to have, you know, a properly-functioning, growing population. And so in that case the research actually formed a moratorium for a while and then the quotas were reduced. And that’s kind of the way the science should work in it, to help, you know, form the understanding. But there are many, many places where we just haven’t had the studies. We don’t know the exact impacts of the hunting, you know, in many of the places that it occurs. And I think we are trying to look at where those gaps are and the research that needs to be done. But to be totally honest from my perspective – and people will often say, “Well, why haven’t we focused more on that?” We haven’t focused on it because trophy hunting isn’t a major threat to any species that I’m aware of. So we have focused more on doing research on the key threats to wildlife. So for instance, for me conflict with people is the major threat that I was focusing on. Habitat loss is another key threat. Now potentially trophy hunting and all the policies around it are becoming more of an issue. Because ironically these pushes to ban trophy hunting, because it’s perceived as so damaging to wildlife, may well lead to these threats we’ve just talked about–more land conversion, more poaching. And so we have to be – start to build a very robust evidence base looking specifically at trophy hunting in Africa, because that’s where a lot of these policy discussions sort of arise and where they’re focused on.
BOB: So is there more research energy and funding being directed at looking at these questions?
AMY: Yes, definitely. So I’m certainly away – right now we’re looking at funding to come into looking for some of these key research gaps that were just identified from the Helsinki study, and looking at actually some of they keys facts. So I say “facts” and (inaudible) comments, but the key narratives that underpin this debate. You know, is trophy hunting – you can’t even say is it good or bad for conservation, because it really is so variable in each place. And what is the strength of the evidence for the community benefits that go from it? What is the evidence that the impact is having on population or the extent to which it’s protecting habitat? We have to have much better scientific foundations so that we can make good policy decisions. Because otherwise on both sides of this argument you get an awful lot of policy – of lobby groups’ pressure, basically trying to push the narrative one way or the other. So I think it’s really important that we start to provide a much stronger foundation. And while a lot of the research so far has focused on direct impact on populations, which often are negative for things like lions and leopards, we haven’t really looked at these (likelihoods) of land conversion and the impacts of vacant blocks, for instance, versus actively hunting areas. We’ve got a paper that will be published soon hopefully on that, and that is looking at the fact that if you have an area that was trophy hunted, but now you leave it vacant because it’s no longer productive–because of things potentially like import bans or restrictions on it–the likelihood is – and we’re seeing good data – is that you will have those negative human pressures coming in, you’ll have more poaching, you’ll have more land conversion. But we don’t have solid evidence showing that yet. And to some extent I’m worried that by the time we have the solid evidence showing that it will be too late for those areas, because it’s very hard to (claw) wildlife back, and habitat back more critically. So how do we inform these policy debates without having the evidence of a perfect example of what happens, you know, and the counterfactual of when hunting is taken away? So it’s a very complicated one to actually inform policy on.
BOB: So when did you become convinced that trophy hunting had a place in African wildlife conservation? Was it a paper? Was it an example from your own work, a story?
AMY: It’s been experienced over the last 20 years, and I would say that it’s not so much about being convinced that it has a place and that it has no issues or anything. I’m not a proponent of trophy hunting per se, I don’t really like it on a personal level, but certainly from understanding and seeing the huge amount of wildlife killing that was going on in areas where wildlife had no value… So for instance, I would see in our work around Ruaha that seven lions would be killed in a weekend. You know, and then suddenly I would put that aside – see the huge amount of international attention that was going to trophy hunting, where maybe a – you know, a few lions were being killed across thousands of square kilometers. The amount of lion killing that we were dealing with was at least 50 times higher than would’ve been permitted in a trophy hunting area. And yet it gets no attention whatsoever. And I became very concerted thinking we can see around Ruaha there are huge hunting concessions. And if those areas become economically nonviable then it seemed very likely to me, and to many of our team, that what you would see is this conversion to human-dominated lands. You would see exactly the kinds of killings that we were seeing on village land. So I became very worried that while I could see that there was concerns about trophy hunting, that it wasn’t being seen in terms of what the long-term consequence would be if it was taken away without better alternatives. So I only really got involved with that – I used to laugh a little bit at this and think, God, that debate looks so toxic; I’m glad I’m not part of it [LAUGHTER], which I now look back at ironically, and focus just very much on the threat of conflict. But then having been spurred on to think about this more and seeing the pressure after the Cecil killing, and that was a lion that my colleagues were studying, because I’m – you know, where we are at Oxford. And just seeing this growing narrative that trophy hunting must go, and being very aware of the realities on the ground of what happens when you take away the incentives, I got very concerned about it. So talked to lots of colleagues who shared these concerns, and sort of over 130 of us, including community representatives, wrote this letter to science just warning about the fact of unintended consequences if trophy hunting is taken away without better alternatives ready to protect the land and the wildlife. And it creates an absolute – I just – yeah, just the storm that it creates afterwards I was completely unprepared for. I didn’t realize quite the depth of really public engagement and hostility about this topic. And I also didn’t realize the strength of lobby group involvement. And, yeah, it’s been a steep learning curve since then, definitely.
BOB: So go back to describe this, because the – this has been U.K.-centered I think. But is it also happening in the U.S.?
AMY: It’s definitely happening in the U.S. as well. So the killing of Cecil the lion sort of really made headlines obviously all over the world. And it was actually Jimmy Kimmel that really propelled that one to the – (inaudible) sort of the stage and got loads and loads of attention for it. And so while there’s been a campaign – or particularly campaigns in the U.K. to ban trophy hunting, and this pressure at the moment on the U.K. government to try to ban trophy hunting imports, or at least restrict them coming into the U.K., that’s been a lot of – taken a lot of political time here. There are similar pressures in the U.S. certainly. There was something called the “Cecil Act” I think, or the “Cecil Act,” as you guys would call it, that was aimed particularly at restricting imports of certain species, elephants and lions for instance, from certain African countries. So it’s certainly getting its way into these political narratives and into the push for legislation.
BOB: But these anti-trophy hunting groups existed before you wrote the letter to science, correct?
AMY: Oh, definitely. They absolutely existed before. And, you know, it’s very much classic–there are big animal rights groups that are obviously anti things like trophy hunting. And interestingly I think we agree on many, many topics. I don’t like the idea of trophy hunting. It kind of depresses me that we’ve got to a stage where one of our key reasons for bringing in revenue is your safe or protected areas, and then international parks budgets often, is because people want to kill an animal. That’s just depressing to me. But it is the reality we’ve got right now. And I tend to be fairly pragmatic at thinking let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and let’s make sure we’ve got better plans in place before we take it away.
BOB: You’ve received death threats and abuse over your stance on trophy hunting. Tell me a little bit about that.
AMY: Yeah, I’ve received a lot of abuse about this. And again, I was quite surprised by it. Because each time I look back at that I think I’m not arguing for anything beyond just saying that we should be careful, and…
BOB: You don’t expect that when you send a letter to science. You don’t expect death threats back.
AMY: You really don’t expect all kinds of craziness, abuse. But it was interesting because it was actually very, very targeted and very orchestrated in a way that I was very surprised by. So for instance, I was–how should I (inaudible)–I saw a press release that was going out by one of the organizations linked with this, some of the campaigning organizations that was – had all these – trying to discredit me based on all these nonsense allegations saying that, you know, we were trying to abuse the science, and we could never be trusted, and we’d lost all this credibility because I was being paid by pro-trophy hunting organizations. This was the narrative that was going out there. And I was horrified to see the press release. It was deeply disturbing to see that anyone would put these kinds of things together and try to discredit scientists for speaking out on very much sort of an ad hominem attack on the scientists themselves and their credibility. I got approached by a journalist a few days later saying they were going to run with the story, and did I have anything to say? And I said, “The story’s not even true. If you look at the funding we’ve received, we have received 0.8% of our funding, 7 years ago, from a group – from a pro-trophy hunting group. But we’ve received far more than that from groups against trophy hunting. So if the narrative is that I’m affected by my funders then actually what I’m biased by is I’m biased against hunting. But clearly, you know, that was just way too nuanced and everything [LAUGHTER], and it just didn’t fit with the nice narrative of, like, you know, “Look at this Oxford scientist being paid off by the hunters” kind of thing. And so that got a lot of traction, and surprisingly. And just seeing this orchestrated attack to try to attack scientists’ credibility for speaking out about valid conservation issues, I’ve been horrified by. And obviously there’s an element – particularly I think women get much more of this kind of abuse than men do, which is interesting. You know, all kinds of awful things about everything – obviously the classic things–what I look like, what my children are like–just all sorts of nonsense, ridiculous things. So yeah, I think it’s been depressing to see, and I’m not surprised that more people don’t stand up. It has made me more passionate than ever about saying we have to be able to have a space for scientists to talk even about contentious issues. Because if we don’t, if we’re silenced by this fear of the mob, and the fear of speaking out against what people intrinsically just naturally would like to believe, then we’re doing a disservice to science. And I think that’s not what we’re here for. This isn’t a popularity contest, thank goodness, because I’m losing it.
BOB: So let’s talk about that for a second. Because we would like it not to be a popularity contest, the science community and research communicators such as myself. But, you know, I became aware of this story because of a piece that was written in the Guardian that quoted you. And according to that piece in the Guardian there was a petition that was signed by over a million people that was sent to the U.K. government to ban trophy hunting imports. The piece was about, in part, the controversy, but it was – it focused – the lead focused on the sense that scientists are warning, “Hey, there are – global conservation is being undermined by these celebrities – by celebrity power,” and that’s bizarre. And so you told the Guardian, [quote], “I find it strange that people listen more to actors and comedians than to trained conservation scientists, or more importantly the local stakeholders.” We’ll talk about what I wrote about in a second about that, but my question is why do you find that strange? Because I think it’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s strange, and I don’t think most people would because they have these bizarrely intimate relationships with celebrities. [CROSSTALK] It seemed supri- I’m surprised that you’re surprised, is I guess what I’m saying.
AMY: It definitely was interesting because your piece–and it made me think about that definitely–but I do – I still find it strange. Because to me I value expertise. And when I look at, say, the COVID response or who’s speaking at those Downing Street press briefings–which you probably haven’t seen–but anyway, if you see that you see the chief medical advisor, you see the government medical advisors, you see the health secretary, you see people who have expertise in this topic. It would be odd to me, it would be surprising if Ricky Gervais or someone else stood up there and gave their view on COVID-19. Because, yeah, I might like you–I think Ricky does great comedy–but I wouldn’t expect that. I would find it surprising that we wanted to listen to what Ricky thought about rather than an epidemiologist. So in the same vein, when celebrities get very involved with this kind of campaign it’s just – it’s surprising in the same way. Yes, we can value what they do, and yes, we have these oddly intimate connections with them where we think we know them, and we trust them, and we like them. But to take that a further leap and say we trust everything they say about a complicated issue, I wouldn’t do that as a sc- I just – that goes beyond my understanding of those topics because I’m very much driven by wondering what expertise people have in something. But I also get completely – and as I read your article about it I thought you’re right. I mean, people do get very influenced by people who have a platform on this. And it comes down to the heart of one of the things I find most regrettable, as you say, about this debate is that the people who have the biggest platforms are often the furthest removed from these topics. And the furthest I’ve got from the field the more I’ve seen the voices about these topics get stronger. And the lack of voice for the people on the ground… You mentioned that over a million people signed that petition. Over a million people have spoken out from the community perspective against these bans, and against these celebrity-led campaigns, because they are saying, “We are being ignored.” And because they are not on social media they don’t have the platforms, they don’t have the followers, they are – yes, they are getting undermined and ignored. And to me that’s – that’s unfair. It shouldn’t be how it is because they know so much more about it, and they have so much more intrinsically embedded in it than the celebrities do.
BOB: So I wrote this piece on my blog that was critical of what I read you and other scientists were saying in that Guardian piece. And, you know, I’ve worked with scientists for 25 years, and I’ve found this attitude among scientists to be kind of typical that, “We don’t recognize the power of emotion and identification,” which is – you know, celebrity that – it’s concentrated, right? It’s, like, 200 proof. You wrote in response a very moving piece that I recommend to everybody, and I’ll put it in the link to it in the show notes, about your anguish at some of the gruesome deaths of lions from poaching and in places where they’re not protected. And there are some graphic pictures with the (piece, are shocking) but also need to be seen. I mean, definitely they make the narrative come alive in a way that you’re, like, “Wow, okay, this is what’s going on.” You began that piece with these words, “I have spent more nights in my tent crying over lion deaths than I wish to count.” If it’s not too painful tell us about one of those deaths.
AMY: Oh yeah, as you say there are so many. And I touch on some of them that are really awful. I mean, particularly for me the pregnant lionesses are always just the worst. And there was the one that – there was pictures of it out there in the bush where there’s the heavily-pregnant lioness, and she was just – you know, it was clear that she was very close to full-term. And when we all cut her open and looked it was just – you know, these cubs were ready to be born. And you just think, God, this is a devastating death, you know, not only for the female but these cubs and all that they represented for the species. You know, it’s just – it gets you… And no one – it never gets any attention because it’s not – there’s not a clear villain in the piece. You know, and I think narratives – these simplistic narratives like villains, and they like someone to be able to point a finger at, like, Walter Palmer or whoever. You know, this is a bad American dentist coming in and doing this evil thing. And so as I touched on in my piece to you, it’s like how do we tell that full complex story of conservation? Because in this time when we just have apparently 30-second attention spans or whatever it is, and Twitter tags, and – I mean, how do you do it? And that’s – I didn’t really have the answers when I responded to you. But your piece really made me think, is that we see these things, and we do try to say this shouldn’t just be about emotion. 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.
BOB: Is there a conversation among scientists, among conservation scientists that this is a marketing challenge for science, not just a communications challenge? Because it often strikes me that–I’ve written about this before–that science comes into gunfights with knives. And knives are often effective in gun fights, so that metaphor actually doesn’t work, but you know what I mean. Like, we are out-gunned because we’re writing letters to science and they’re using celebrities and 30-second spots, and they have sophisticated social campaigns. And who can win against that, right? So why not fight fire with fire? Is there discussion in the lion conservation community about mounting a marketing campaign that would somehow rehabilitate trophy hunting?
AMY: Well, I don’t think it’s about necessarily rehabilitating trophy hunting as such, but it’s about pushing particularly sort of local rights. So I would say I think that is the key is there are two themes…
AMY: …that I think that have real traction here that we should be pushing a lot, lot more. It is talking about overall conservation. So for instance reducing overall wildlife killings. And that’s a theme that I think we should push, because whether an animal is trophy hunted, or poisoned, or snared, it doesn’t know. What counts to it is how horribly it dies, and then it matters how many animals die like that. So to me our focus should be on reducing unsustainable killing. And we should to sort of pivot towards that, because that would be much better and more productive in general. And secondly, and very importantly I think, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the interest in that, I think focusing on the fact that local people have these rights over wildlife, and those rights should not be undermined because it offends people in the West, is a really powerful narrative that needs to be stressed a lot more. Because otherwise it just seems a very near-Colonial approach that basically we have – what Africans are doing is offending Westerners, and therefore we are going to stop them doing it even if it costs them livelihoods and damages conservation, just because we don’t like it on a social-media feed. So, I mean, that seems a very damaging position to me, and something I think… But that pushback needs to come from the communities, and they need to be asserting their rights. And of course it’s unequal. How can a local Zambian or Zimbabwean villager, or even a community, stand up against these big celebrities who reach millions of people? So we’re just seeing another recasting of that traditional imbalance that’s always existed between – you know, often between the global north and the global south. So it’s a real challenge. These discussions are definitely going on. But interestingly we are often told–and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot since your piece–we’re often told by the bigger sort of NGOs or the groups not to say this stuff, “Don’t get into the weeds or the complexity. Don’t share it. People don’t like the bad news; just share the good news.” And to me that is dishonest. I mean, how on earth can we get buy-in from everyone if we can’t tell them the real stories of conservation, if we can’t share the complexity, if we can’t say, “This is really challenging stuff that we’ve got to deal with, and we need all of us to come together with way more money and political buy-in to do this work.” But if you’re giving us little sound bites of – all we can show is a little lion cub being born, and named animals, and making it very anthropomorphic, we’re failing – we’re failing to tell our own story.
BOB: Having worked with conservation for a long time that’s just such a benighted view. It’s good for fundraising. It’s good for fundraising for the certain generation to tell only the nice stories. But with a younger generation of donors that’s interested in impact-investing ignoring the bad news and ignoring evidence isn’t going to work.
AMY: Well, good, I’m glad. Because I think we absolutely need to get out there about the realities and the honesty of this stuff. And I think the more we can get the local voices, the local perspectives out there… But it’s very difficult because when we talk about habitat conservation, you know, there’s no sexy photos you can really show that. It’s just – it looks like a load of (inaudible) (bush). Whereas it’s very compelling the picture of the lion with the fat person sitting behind it smiling away. That is a compelling story in one second that someone can look at and feel all those – it taps into our own prejudices straightaway. So, yeah, I’m interested to learn how to do more about this because I think we’re failing. But its complexity is hard to community.
BOB: Well, I’ve said it but, you know, I’ll say it again, the story you told was so compelling in and of itself. If you can find a celebrity to help you tell it, all the better. But the stories you have are riveting, so they’re highly competitive with the stories that the other groups are telling. Last question, when I worked at the Nature Conservancy I had a scientist friend who used to tell me–and she would shake her head every time she said this–“science is the buzzkill.” Science had various roles within conservation, but most often it was the buzzkill. And that meant that you’d walk everybody back from some great idea, basically some fantasy that they had, because the evidence didn’t support it. And that role was the hardest to maintain, because if you have to be the buzzkill over and over and over again people shut you out, they turn you off at a certain point. And there’s a lot of pressure not to be the buzzkill all the time. How do deal with the pressure as a scientist? I mean, is it just your identification? Obviously you have your own organization, so – and it is responsive to research, but how do you deal with that emotional pressure of not being the buzzkill?
AMY: Well, it’s something I’d only heard about in your podcast [LAUGHTER], so it might be more American. But no, I mean, it’s an interesting one because I think we are often seen, yeah, as these doom-laden people sitting in the back saying, “That won’t work, and that won’t work.” But I think we have to change that narrative as well. Conservation and science in particular, this is where great ideas come from. This is where we can bring people together. Because I think we have to harness the passion that we went into science for, and the (inaudible) the innovation, the openness. And that’s something that I’m always the most excited by in our work is when we touch on a really intractable problem. We say, “Well, actually this is a great potential solution,” and we can get people behind it, and we can see these changes. And then we build the evidence. We trial it–some ways it goes wrong, and some ways, you know, it shows positive traits. And then we can take that and lead it forward. But I think my role as a conservation scientist as I see it is to really try to not be the buzzkill and try to say, we don’t want to endlessly share the bad news about it. We want to say to people, “This is all of our planet. This is a global conservation crisis.” Let’s all get together and say, “We have some ideas, you have some money,” you know, other people have passion and interest. And together really honestly we can make the solutions to make it better. And we are developing those on the ground. And I really think we can definitely try not to be the buzzkill in the room about it.
BOB: Amy Dickman, wonderful to talk with you. Thanks so much and best of luck going forward telling your story, and with your conservation efforts.
AMY: Thank you very much. Thanks for giving me the time.