Science + Celebrity for Conservation–A call for partnership based on knowledge, not opposition driven by emotion


This moving essay is a response to criticism that wildlife scientists don’t seem aware that “science isn’t enough.”

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 agonizing about what was happening to those newborn cubs, almost certainly starving wherever 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.

A big lioness in the prime of life—one of our collared study females—whose poisoning led to utter carnage, with the carcasses of five other lions and more than 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 be in time to save the cubs. But no—we 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 lost to human-wildlife conflict. Author’s photo

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 hyena we found decapitated in the bush, the beautiful tawny eagles sprawled lifeless on the ground after being poisoned.

We see countless such deaths, but they still impact me emotionally every time. None of those animals was named or globally celebrated, 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 that receive little media 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.

Without a shadow of a doubt, 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 of our team, who work tirelessly to protect them, and for every field conservation scientist I know.

This is why it always surprises me when—as in a recent Science+Story post—we wildlife scientists are portrayed somewhat robotically, as though we are surprised that mere data does not outweigh emotional or moral considerations in debates over, say, trophy hunting. This fits a wider narrative that portrays us—those who warn about the risks of banning trophy hunting without viable alternatives—as heartless and uncaring about the killing of wild animals. Literally nothing could be further from the truth.

There is good scientific evidence that banning trophy hunting without better options to protect wildlife, habitat and livelihoods risks amplifying major threats such as land conversion and poaching. But my colleagues and I, as we engage in these debates, are very aware that science is not enough to win hearts and minds. And we have no problem with people getting emotional about killing wild animals; we want that passion. The world would be appalling without it. We feel it ourselves, strongly.

This passion makes us deeply fearful that hasty action against hunting could lead to far more terrible wildlife deaths like those described above, as local communities kill wild animals that no longer deliver value.

Harnessing public passion

We are often at odds with celebrities, mostly from the entertainment business, who criticize hunting. Yet we would love to have them involved in conservation. If they were well-informed as well as outspoken, they could raise public awareness of threats to conservation far more effectively than we scientists can, and mobilize positive action on a global scale.

But we are frustrated when complex conservation topics are presented as simple soundbites and fragmented snapshots of reality, out of context and with no awareness 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 a pampered 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” who can be used for campaigning and fund-raising. But conservation is immensely more complicated than this.

The carcasses of lions, critically endangered vultures and other wildlife after scavenging a  poisoned bait set out to kill livestock predators. Author’s photo

The Science+Story post suggests that we scientists “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.” This is the core of the challenge: How do we, as conservationists, tell “the full story” when it is complicated and messy? How can we reach people, and are they 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 against land conversion, poaching and terrible conflict-related wildlife killings simply does not have immediate power on social media. Facts and statistics, as we all know, usually don’t change minds. Even when we post photos of these illegal killings of lions (which are usually far more damaging to conservation than killings by legal trophy hunters), there is a startling lack of public interest or concern, as if those deaths somehow don’t count in the same way. And lions are one of the most beloved species on the planet.

Generating public passion on social media for entire, healthy ecosystems, or for conserving the myriads of less-appealing species such as invertebrates or reptiles, seems impossibly difficult. Most true conservation threats just don’t lend themselves to campaigning. It can even backfire. For example, when conflict-related wildlife killings do hit the headlines, the backlash against the local people who did the killings can actually intensify the conflict, not reduce it.

The reality is that field conservation is complicated, with dizzying minefields of unintended consequences. But no one wants to hear this—it just isn’t sexy, simple or compelling, unlike the clear-cut (albeit usually false) narrative that banning trophy hunting will make things better. Oh, how I wish it were that simple.

The fence running down the center of the photo separates a trophy-hunting area, right, from land converted to agriculture. Mike Angelides photo

In the field, we see the very real consequences of well-meant but poorly considered actions. More trophy hunting blocks in parts of Southern Africa are lying vacant. This might be a success for some campaigners, but if you actually spend time there, and see the degree of poaching, habitat loss (to crops, charcoal production and logging) and wildlife killing in these vacant blocks, you realise that this is often a terrible loss for wildlife, not a win. Yet the pressure is only growing to ban hunting, although I know of no viable alternatives ready to protect and conserve former hunting blocks.

It takes more than mere facts

We know that evidence is not winning this battle. This is painfully clear to us conservation scientists—and to millions of rural people who get virtually no voice in these debates. So what to do? I’m not sure, but I know what could be an important step in the right direction:

Let’s leave aside the alleged “disdain” of scientists for emotion, marketing campaigns and celebrity—we should instead use these things to safeguard habitat and to fight real conservation threats such as prey loss, poaching and conflict with vulnerable local people. I want all of us, at the very least, to agree that our aim should be to work with local people to reduce overall wildlife killings—rather than caring only about a few animals killed by trophy hunters.

To do otherwise risks hugely increasing the accelerating silent loss of habitat and wildlife. Most people on Earth, those outraged Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users, will never see these impacts—and wild lands will continue to be cleared, the savannahs will continue to fall silent and many more un-named but vital wild animals will die appalling deaths or simply fade away with their habitat.

This is an unashamedly emotional plea to all, including celebrities: If you truly care about protecting wildlife, then please make space for the full, messy story of real conservation challenges. Listen to the field conservation scientists and the local communities, and then work with us. Together we can take action and reduce the despair we all feel about the destruction of our natural world.

Dr. Amy Dickman is a prominent conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer who directs the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. She is also joint CEO of Lion Landscapes, an independent Kenya-based non-profit research organization. A version of this essay first appeared on March 12 in Science+Story. Her most recent podcast was published on March 25.

Banner image: The carcasses of three very young lion cubs speared in the bush. Author’s photo