Courage and complexity in conservation
Conservation takes courage. Coming from lion conservationists, you might think we are talking about fieldwork, which certainly has its challenges. Tracking wild lions on foot, living in remote field camps with snakes and poisonous spiders, facing community anger and grief when wild animals destroy peoples’ livelihoods or, appallingly, kill their children. The emotional stresses are often greater than the physical ones, and go well beyond the risks of fieldwork. Year after year, we and our teams deal with the gritty realities of conservation – the kinds of events that make you cry in your tent at night. We deal with the aftermath of poisoned lions, snared leopards, mauled livestock, and spend countless hours developing new ways to try to deal with a staggering diversity of threats, from charcoal burning to bushmeat poaching. There are bright spots too, when we know our team has made a tangible positive impact on people and wildlife, and those should be celebrated.
But make no bones about it, we are just putting our fingers in the dam, as seemingly unstoppable human pressures swamp the wonders of biodiversity. And we are not alone. Every conservationist we know, whether they are working on lichens or lions, is deeply committed, enthusiastic, and steeped in expertise and passion. They are all fighting to save biodiversity in immensely complex and challenging situations.
It is surprising, then, to see how much the passion, expertise and courage of conservation scientists fades as soon as we step away from the savannahs into the far more hostile environment of social media. Moving from dealing with angry warriors armed with spears to dealing with keyboard warriors armed with emojis, we are disempowered by unwritten but seemingly immutable rules.
People only want good news stories. You can’t post photos of dead animals or people will be ‘put off’. Don’t depress people. Don’t focus on nameless animals – people like to hear stories about known individuals. Keep it simple, avoid complexity and nuance - people like black and white stories, ideally with a clear ‘villain’. Don’t get into anything too contentious, or people might not like you. Don’t speak out on controversial issues or it will cause public distrust and donor abandonment. Don’t risk it. Post a cute picture of a lion cub called Lucky instead.
When did we all become so scared about sharing reality?
This lack of honest engagement is increasing the disconnect between public perceptions of conservation and reality. Scared into submission, conservationists dutifully highlight the birth of Lucky and her litter-mates, so people feel happy. They are dissuaded from highlighting the far-more-frequent killings of unnamed wild animals, whose very anonymity means they are critically important, as they are likely to live in less studied areas. Conservationists are often directly told not to raise important fears – such as the risk of habitat and biodiversity loss from misinformed policy – in case it alienates donors. This has very real consequences.
How can we get the public, political and economic buy-in needed to properly address huge issues like lion decline, tackling key threats such as habitat loss, if no-one recognises the complexity of the topic and why it is so challenging?
What donors and the wider public believe is shaped directly by what we tell them. If they think that all is well in the world of lion conservation, because we focus on showing them photos of Lucky the lion cub living happily in an apparent safe haven, we have no-one to blame but ourselves. Equally, failing to challenge overly negative ‘extinction narratives’ also does conservation a disservice. For example, campaigners have recently claimed that there are only 10,000 lions left, while there is a persistent media myth that they face extinction by 2050. In fact, latest estimates put the wild lion population (excluding those in smaller fenced areas) at around 24,000 animals, and while their numbers and range are very likely to diminish further, extinction is very unlikely as populations will remain within well-protected areas. Some will say that we shouldn’t nit-pick: lions and many other species are under major threat, so why change media narratives which highlight that (and which are likely to help generate donations)? Because facts and truth matter. They are the very foundation of scientific understanding, and we should treat them lightly at our peril.
If conservationists fail to truthfully engage with the public, it will ultimately make conservation success less likely. Overly negative warnings risk public ‘extinction fatigue’, and make it harder to gain attention for truly urgent threats. Furthermore, simplistic messaging creates simplistic understanding. It creates the illusion that conservation is easy, and that anyone can do it – which is why, in the media anyone with a passing interest in wildlife seems to be termed ‘a conservationist’. It diminishes the understanding that conservation work requires many years of professional expertise to understand its complexities. People recognise that with medicine, engineering, physics and so much else, but we are failing to communicate it for conservation.
This is not about bruised professional egos – simplistic understanding (or worse, misinformation) can actively intensify the conservation threats we battle against every day. It creates a swell of support for simplistic, false ‘solutions’ which risk making things worse when they meet complex realities on the ground. Current examples are campaigns to ban trophy hunting (which risk amplifying the far greater threats of habitat and biodiversity loss, as well as undermining local communities) and campaigns to end all wildlife trade (which fail to recognise the benefits of legal, sustainable trade and risk harming millions of vulnerable people). Once such campaigns have public and political traction, the voices of concerned conservationists go virtually unheard, like shouting into a storm. Instead, we need to act far sooner, by being open and honest about the realities of conservation, even if it is risky.
The risks are real: from personal experience, we know that speaking out openly on complex topics such as trophy hunting risks abuse and targeted campaigns to try to discredit scientists. This is appalling, but should not stop us engaging. While some donors only want simple narratives, we have found that most people are far more resilient and open to honest and informed perspectives, even about contentious topics, than conservationists appear to give them credit for. Everyone knows that life is complicated, and that actions often risk unintended consequences. So when you explain those realities in conservation, it resonates as authentic. People trust us with their money and their passion for wildlife, and we should honour that trust by engaging with them honestly and openly.
Right now, the system is not working. The realities and complexities of conservation are abundantly clear in the field, but all too often, unpalatable truths are filtered out by the media and PR lens of conservation NGOs, fearful of public and donor backlash. We must have the courage to know our expertise, and use it to shape public discourse and policy discussions. The natural world needs the passion and knowledge, openly shared, of those fighting to conserve it. The public need to know that what we do is complex, difficult and immensely challenging. Conservation deserves it. Scientists deserve it. Donors and the wider public deserve it. Long-term, even Lucky the lion cub deserves it.
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