How researchers get heard

Science + Celebrities: A Call for Partnership

This guest post is by Dr. Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer who directs the Ruaha Carnivore Project (and is also joint CEO of Lion Landscapes, a Kenya-based independent non-profit conservation research org that increases the capacity of local partners to secure viable populations of lions. Amy wrote this gracious and moving essay in response to my recent post taking her and other scientists to task for not engaging more with UK celebrities who have supported campaigns critical of trophy hunting in Africa, despite that activity’s demonstrated benefits for wildlife conservation. I’m honored to publish it here, and ask that you share it with your networks. –Bob Lalasz

I have spent more nights in my tent crying over lion deaths than I wish to count. Given my lifelong passion for this incredible wild cat, each death cuts me to the core, but some stand out more than others. The lioness whose hind legs were cut off, and whose swollen teats suggested she had only recently given birth – I spent days agonising about what was happening to those newborn cubs, almost certainly starving to death where she had carefully hidden them. Three other tiny lion cubs, speared and piled up in the bush with a wooden stake through their fragile bodies. A young lion, perhaps only two or three years old, whose ravaged paw showed the agony of hours in a wire snare before it died from multiple spear wounds.

Bodies of three very young lion cubs speared in the bush

A big lioness in the prime of life – one of our collared females – whose poisoning led to utter carnage, with the bodies of five other lions and over 70 critically endangered vultures scattered around her in an orgy of appalling, indiscriminate death. A heavily pregnant poisoned lioness, who we cut open in some vague hope that we might have reached her in time to save the cubs. But no – we instead found the still bodies of three perfect, full-term cubs, never able to play their role in the continuation of the species.

A heavily pregnant lioness killed due to conflict

And it goes far beyond lions. The horror of a leopard who died in agony, its right paw trapped in the unforgiving steel of a gin trap. The hyaena we found decapitated in the bush, the beautiful tawny eagles sprawled lifeless on the ground after being poisoned. We see countless deaths, but they still emotionally impact me every time. None of those animals was named, or globally loved like ‘Cecil’ the lion – but their deaths count at least as much, if not more, because their very anonymity shows they lived in wild areas which receive little attention. They died because they had no perceived value to people in those areas, and the sadness I feel for every one of these deaths is awful.

The bodies of lions, critically endangered vultures, and other wildlife after a poisoning event

I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am deeply, passionately and emotionally committed to the conservation of these incredible animals and the landscapes they live in. The same goes for all our team, who work tirelessly to protect them, and for every field conservation scientist I know. That is why it is always surprising – for example in a recent SciencePlusStory post – when we are portrayed somewhat robotically, apparently surprised that ‘the science’ does not outweigh emotional or moral considerations in conservation debates, such as over trophy hunting. This fits within a wider narrative, which portrays those of us who warn about the risks of banning trophy hunting without viable alternatives as heartless and uncaring about wild animal killing. Literally nothing could be further from the truth.

There is good scientific evidence that banning trophy hunting without better options ready to protect wildlife, habitat and livelihoods risks amplifying major threats such as land conversion and poaching. But my colleagues and I who engage in these debates are very aware that ‘science’ is not enough to win hearts and minds. We have no problem with people getting emotional about wild animal killing: we want that passion, it would be an appalling world without it. Importantly, we feel it strongly ourselves – I am deeply fearful that hasty bans could lead to far more terrible wildlife deaths like those described above. We also have no problem with having celebrities involved in conservation: if well-informed, they can raise awareness of major threats and mobilise positive global action.

But the frustration comes when complex conservation topics are presented as simple soundbites and fragmented snapshots of reality, without discussing the wider context or the risks of extremely serious unintended consequences. We all know that simplistic narratives do very well on social media – it is easy to generate global outrage against an obese trophy hunter grinning over a dead lion, or a woman holding up a giraffe heart on Valentine’s Day. These images are extremely powerful and, crucially, have a clear ‘villain’ that can be used for campaigning and fund-raising. But in truth, conservation is immensely more complicated than it first appears. 

The SciencePlusStory post suggests that we ‘might be able to connect with the emotions, morality and aspirations of millions by telling the full story of how conservation fails and might succeed’. But this is the absolute core of the challenge. How do we as conservation scientists ‘tell the full story’ when it is complicated and messy? How can we reach people, and would they actually be prepared to listen to that full story, especially if it goes against their preconceptions? The fact that trophy hunting – even if it turns our stomachs – can help protect vast areas of habitat, guarding against land conversion, poaching and terrible conflict-related killings, simply doesn’t have immediate power on social media. Facts and statistics, as we all know, usually don’t change minds. Even when we post photos of the killings I describe – which are usually far more damaging for conservation than trophy hunting killings – there is a startling lack of public interest or concern, as if those deaths somehow don’t count in the same way.

And this is for lions, one of the most loved species on the planet. The chance of generating public passion for entire healthy ecosystems, or conserving the myriads of less publicly appealing species such as invertebrates or reptiles seems impossibly low. Most of the true conservation threats just don’t lend themselves well to campaigning. For example, when conflict-related wildlife killings do hit the headlines, the backlash against local people risks actually intensifying conflict, not reducing it. The reality is that field conservation is complicated, with dizzying minefields of unintended consequences. But no-one wants to hear that – it is just not sexy, simple or compelling, unlike the simple (albeit usually false) narrative that trophy hunting is a major conservation threat and that banning it will automatically make things better. Oh how I wish it were that simple.

Trophy hunting area (on right) protecting land from agricultural conversion (c) Mike Angelides

In the field, we see the very real consequences of well-meaning but poorly considered actions. Trophy hunting blocks are increasingly lying vacant – this might be a success for some campaigners, but once you actually spend time in them, and see the degree of poaching, habitat conversion and wildlife killing in vacant blocks, you realise it is often far from a win for wildlife. Yet the pressure is only growing for bans, although I’m unaware of evidence for viable alternatives ready to avoid many more vacant blocks.

So we know that the evidence presented is not winning the battle – that is painfully clear to us as conservation scientists, as well as to millions of affected rural people who get virtually no voice in these debates. So what to do? I’m not sure, but I know what I would like to see as an important step in the right direction. Far from scientists having a ‘disdain’ for emotion, marketing campaigns and celebrities, I would love to see all those things used to safeguard wildlife habitat, and to deal with real conservation threats such as prey loss, poaching and conflict with vulnerable local people. I want us, at the very least, to agree that our aim should be to work with local people to reduce overall wildlife killings, rather than only caring about animals killed by trophy hunters. To do otherwise risks hugely increasing the silent loss of much more habitat and wildlife. Most people won’t see those impacts – land will gradually be cleared, savannahs will fall silent, and we will respond to many more appalling deaths of nameless but vital wild animals.

So this is an unashamedly emotional plea, including to celebrities – if you truly care about reducing wildlife killings, then please make space for hearing that ‘full story’ of messy, real conservation challenges. Listen to the perspectives of field conservation scientists and local communities, work with us as well, and together we can take action and reduce the despair we feel about the destruction of our natural world.

Thank you.