the internet as a source of information or innovation?

What do the trailer for Blue Planet 2, an Instagram post of Justin Bieber with his pet monkey, and this blog have in common? While all three are presented by cultural icons, they also show the increasing influence of the internet on people’s ideas of nature. In the 21st century, the majority of interactions between people and nature occur online. This dominion of the digital offers opportunities for conservation innovation.

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A key way that conservationists have exploited these online opportunities is by ‘crowd-sourcing’ data collection to non-experts. Crowdsourcing is when an organisation takes a job and outsources it to a large network of non-professionals. The growth in the use of the internet and mobile phones enabled the 500,000 people who took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch in the UK in 2018 to submit their results online. Zooniverse, the largest citizen science website, has over 1 million registered volunteers which have generated the data for over 150 academic papers. Crowdsourcing or ‘citizen science’ like this is cheap, quickly generates huge datasets over large areas, and engages the public with conservation issues. For these reasons crowdsourcing has become popular among conservationists.

In addition to citizen science campaigns, conservationists are increasingly starting to extract data from the social media posts. Billions of people create millions of posts every day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, producing a vast amount of openly accessible data. Analysing this data can indicate how people are thinking about and engaging with nature. Most of these posts are geotagged, so people’s values and activities can be located. This form of crowdsourcing is know as ‘crowdsensing‘, as people are not actively producing or volunteering information.

Zooniverse – the largest platform for ‘people-powered research’ (Source:

The internet presents a huge opportunity for conservation. But citizen science and crowdsensing use it as a source of information. These techniques treat people as sensors from which to collect data to fine tune conservation management. Citizen science is widely advertised as ‘empowering‘ for normal people, but in reality it just marks out the boundary between citizens and scientists more clearly. Citizens are used to complete mundane tasks, then scientists stitch together the information and draw innovative conclusions. The difference between citizens and scientists is even more explicit in crowdsensing. In the same way that scientists use satellite data to understand deforestation or species migrations, they use crowdsensing to comprehend people.

Citizen science and crowdsensing interact with a tiny fraction of the potential of the internet for conservation. Crowdsourcing does not just have to be used to generate information to enable professional conservationists to make decisions, it can be used to promote people to develop new approaches.

In 1900 there were more than 100,00 tigers in the wild. Today there are less than 4,000. Current conservation efforts are not working; there is a desperate need for innovation. ‘Think for Tigers’ aimed to solve this creativity crunch by launching an ideas competition to generate innovative ways of tracking and monitoring the species. Advertising through Facebook, Twitter and email, the competition was able to reach around 300,000 people. The winning idea was to study the individual roars of tigers to develop an audio-monitoring technique to monitor population sizes.

New ideas to monitor tiger populations (Source:


Conservation innovation prizes have started to spread. The US-based Conservation X Lab’s award was won by a DNA Barcode scanner which aims to improve supply chain traceability for timber, wildlife and fish. WWF-New Zealand offers 3 prizes of $25,000 each year through its Conservation Innovation Award. One of the 2017 winners was a helicopter-mounted thermal imaging system, which can quickly cover difficult terrain and detect a target invasive pest population of goats, deer and pigs.

A key driver of their popularity is that conservation prizes and challenges are an incredibly efficient use of resources. The prize application process is simple and quick compared to applications for grant funding, and feedback on the application is far faster. This streamlines the process for innovators. Conservation NGOs benefit as the prizes often enable victorious innovators to secure additional funds. Furthermore, these competitions are an effective way for NGOs to draw in talented individuals from other fields. Public engagement can also be enhanced by asking the public to vote for their favourite idea, like WWF-New Zealand do.


‘Think for Tigers’ and WWF-New Zealand show that crowdsourcing is not limited to using the public to generate information, but can be used to harness creative thinking.  Creative crowdsourcing engages innovative people to work with scientists, which flattens the playing field between science and society. This contrasts with information crowdsourcing, which uses people to work for scientists and strengthens the ‘expert’-citizen divide. This is not to say that information crowdsourcing techniques like Citizen Science and crowdsensing are not useful for conservation. They can provide sorely lacking data that is instrumental to conservation successes. But they must stop making false claims to be about ‘engaging’ people with science. If we truly want to engage people in conservation in more productive ways, we should focus more on creative crowdsourcing.  Crowdsourcing shouldn’t just be about strengthening scientists’ ivory towers, it should shake them up as well.



Lazers, space and frames: fighting back against human-wildlife conflict

White-tailed sea eagle

Lazer beams to scare sea eagles“. No, a highly rural EDM festival is not making its debut in Western Scotland. This is a genuine strategy being trialled to prevent eagles from preying on lambs. Eagle predation is a contentious issue in these parts, despite NGO claims that “minimal numbers of live lambs” are taken by sea eagles. This Scottish example is indicative of global trends; livestock predation and crop loss are the main sources of conflict between wildlife and humans. Human-wildlife conflict is reported to be increasing in the global North as reintroduction schemes, rewilding and a retreat of farmland combine to bring farmers into increased contact with predators. In the global South, human-wildlife conflict also appears to be on the rise as populations expand.

The traditional solution to this conflict has been lethal control. However, lazer beams are representative of a new range of non-lethal control methods being used to mitigate conflict. Burning chilli pepper bricks and constructing bee fences are now used to prevent elephants from crop-raiding. Guard dogs have been widely used to protect livestock, and have been shown to be highly effective at reducing livestock losses.


Agressive spatial segregation (source CGTN)

While these solutions are non-lethal, they still constitute an aggressive demarcation of space. They are used to define areas where animals belong and areas where they do not. The techniques might have changed, but the assumption persists that a spatial separation between wildlife and people is mutually beneficial. This separation allegedly results in reduced livestock damage and crop loss, causing a drop in retaliatory killings. I recognise there is a need for protection of discrete areas where there is a proven and severe risk to human life and welfare. Elephants, lions and tigers can and do pose a real risk to human life and livelihoods. But sea eagles in Scotland fail to fit into this category.

These strategies of aggressive demarcation can also reproduce human-wildlife conflict. By creating separation they create attitudes of fear and danger that can exacerbate conflict rather than prevent it.  By depicting a species as belonging to the ‘wilderness’ it becomes the aggressor when it transgresses these arbitrary boundaries. This cycle of separation and transgression lends weight to perceptions of wildlife as dangerous or a nuisance. These understandings tend to stem from a human tendency to fear the unknown, a problem which would be muted if wildlife encounters were an everyday reality not an infrequent occurrence.

This cycle of separation and transgression emerges due to the framing of the problem as  ‘human-wildlife conflict’. Using this phrase frames negative interactions between wildlife and people in 3 important ways. Firstly, it allocates equal responsibility to humans and animals. This is due to pre-existing ideas that we have of what conflict means. The Cambridge Dictionary defines conflict as “an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles” or “fighting between two or more groups of people or countries”. Conflict is used to describe an antagonistic relationship between people who consciously orientate themselves in opposition to each other. By using ‘conflict’ to describe an interaction between humans and wildlife, wildlife is anthropomorphised and raised to the same level of consciousness and responsibility as humans. Wildlife is depicted as equally culpable, allowing it to be blamed.

Secondly, ‘human-wildlife conflict’ positions one group of humans in opposition with a group of wildlife. It conjures up images of farmers killing encroaching elephants, not of the drought that ruined their last crop, the government agricultural policy which depressed the crop price, the international wildlife trade which drives demand for ivory nor the environmental NGO that criticises farmers for the killings. The ‘conflict’ is framed at a purely local level, erasing important social, economic and environmental drivers which may span multiple scales. It also discounts other actors. In the same way that framings of the ‘Israeli-Palestine conflict’ erase the role of the UK and USA, ‘human-wildlife conflict’ erases the role of other groups.

Thirdly, ‘human-wildlife conflict’ allows people to be easily split into two camps. You are either on the side of the people or the side of the wildlife. This creates a value dichotomy, with no possibility to mediate between the two contrasting value sets. This depicts the rift between humans and wildlife, and farmers and conservationists as inevitable.

But there are alternatives to ‘human-wildlife conflict’. In Montana, encounters with large carnivores are an everyday reality. An estimated 528 wolves and 690 grizzly bears reside in Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.Since 2013, the NGO People and Carnivores has been working with rangers in Tom Miner Basin to reframe ‘human-wildlife conflict’ as carnivore coexistence. Their aim is to “work collaboratively with ranch and farm owners and managers to maintain productive operations and to allow habitat use by large carnivores“. A key strategy they use is range riding, which means encouraging ranchers to check on their herds every morning and evening. When they complete these checks, they are encouraged to practice a technique called ‘low-stress livestock handling‘, which is thought to encourage cattle to rediscover their herd instincts, preventing isolated individuals being picked off. In addition, they are attempting to breed back aggression into the cattle to ensure that they protect their calves. This strategy has met with success, with only one probably wolf kill since 2013. This range riding strategy also works in tandem with a compensation scheme. By checking on their herds more regularly, dead animals are discovered more quickly, meaning that the carcass is still fresh enough to determine the cause of death. This means that ranchers don’t feel that they are being cheated out of compensation.

The case of the Tom Miner Basin shows that human adaptation to the presence of wildlife is not limited to spatial segregation. It is possible to reduce the risk of carnivores and farmers sharing the same landscape. Coexistence is a legitimate alternative, but it requires negotiated social solutions not technological silver bullets. To quote rancher Dean Peterson, “it takes give and take in everything we do to come to a medium where everybody is slightly comfortable”.

Celebrity conservation: can famous faces protect natural places?

Mike Tyson and his Bengal tiger

The environmental impacts of celebrities can be even more fickle than their fame. From Justin Bieber’s Capuchin monkey ‘Mally‘ to Mike Tyson’s Bengal tigers, celebrities have been repeatedly criticised for endangering threatened species by heightening demand for wildlife trafficking. But these irresponsible individuals are countered by a suite of stars who use their fame as a platform to support conservation.

An array of A-listers, including Harrison Ford and Leonardo DiCaprio, have become ambassadors for environmental NGOs. In 2006, 90% of Forbes top 100 celebrities were engaged in celebrity advocacy, while 75% of the largest charities in the UK employed celebrity liaison officers. These celebrities use their personal brand to bring high-profile issues to the public’s attention, providing ‘information shortcuts’ for average citizens.

Celebrity advocacy has produced fantastic results for both environmental and developmental causes. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech emphasising climate change at the 2016 Academy Awards led to a huge increase in the volume of news articles, social media posts and information searches. A CNN interview with Angelina Jolie raised $500,000 in donations for the UNHCR.

Celebrity advocacy is thought to be impactful due to their personal wealth, elite connections and public influence. They can use their wealth and connections to get on the ground and do conservation. As they are less hampered by state bureaucracy and political games they can be more efficient and direct conservation actors. They can harness their political influence to pressurise elites into committing more funds and attention to conservation issues. But most of all, as prominent public figures they can bring attention to environmental issues and encourage popular involvement. The ability of a celebrity to create public environmental concern and involvement is dependent on the celebrities credibility and the extent to which the star’s personal brand fits with the environmental message. When these criteria are met, at the very least the celebrity will motivate curiosity and inspire people to investigate the issue further.

Celebrities have become an essential component of conservation NGO advertising campaigns. Their non-expert role is enables them to position themselves as a member of the public, for example Angelina Jolie stating “I don’t believe I feel differently from other people”. Prince William’s claim that “we face a wildlife catastrophe unless we act now” shows how celebrities are used to create shared environmental problems and solutions to mobilise publics rather than individuals. VIPs become witnesses of these shared environmental problems, acting as important bridges between publics and distant destruction. They ‘impersonate’ moral pleas, lending a more human and situated understanding to complex problems.

Using celebrities’ personal brands for conservation can be difficult. Often the superstar can overshadow the issue. Angelina Jolie’s work for the UNHCR was been criticised for emphasising her personal responses to the suffering. This focuses attention on the celebrity’s emotion and less on the cause. A study in the UK found that audiences engaged more with conservation messages presented by one of three prominent UK celebrities (David Beckham, Chris Packham or Prince William) than a non-celebrity control. However, participants were less likely to recall the campaign message presented by adverts featuring the celebrities. Often the audience’s pre-existing relationship with the celebrity can overwhelm the environmental message.

Crawford Allen, Chris Packham, David Beckham and HRH Prince William (Clockwise from top left). Used in study to assess celebrity advocacy impact.

The fickle nature of fame means that a celebrities advocacy potential is not stable. Once a celebrities’ 15 minutes are up their advocacy impact will drop. Alternatively, if a celebrity becomes embroiled in controversy this can reflect back onto the causes they support. For example, following a slew of sexual assault allegations Harvey Weinstein was forced to resign from the Oceana board. Furthermore, if a celebrity’s conservation message is incorrect or damaging, they are difficult to hold to account.

Audiences are also often not as interested in celebrities as is widely assumed. A study of celebrity advocacy in the New York Times showed that while some stars were able to generate hundreds of articles about causes they supported, other A-listers failed to create the same media attention. A survey-based study in the UK found that awareness of major NGO brands was high, but knowledge of celebrity advocates for these brands was low, despite several NGOs having extensive celebrity ambassador programmes. Celebrity does not guarantee public engagement.

Celebrities provide simplified messages that often fail to address structural issues. For example, after the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II aired, an article issued by the Blue Planet team encouraged people to get involved with beach cleans, consume sustainably sourced seafood, use less electricity and use less plastic. But public behaviour change will have no impact without a corresponding shift in corporate regulation. Celebrity advocacy repeatedly fails to hold big business and governments to account. These institutions are the main cause of marine problems like industrial fishing, water pollution and ocean acidification. Blue Planet II ignored these causes, even documented a recovering Norwegian fishery. Only  1% of global fisheries are recovering. This underlines the inability of celebrities and mainstream media to challenge the structural roots of environmental issues.

An orca near a Norwegian fishing vessel in Blue Planet II

This refusal to address structural issues can be attributed to the strong links between celebrities and consumer culture. These links are underlined by the use of celebrities to advocate for environmental issues on traditional marketing mediums, like television advertising. On television, the advertising of environmental issues is interspersed between adverts for consumer goods. Celebrities are advocating for these environmental issues in the same way that other celebrities are advertising for consumer goods in adjacent commercials. So it is not surprising that people begin to interact with environmental issues as though they are another good to be mindlessly consumed. People approach environmental problems within a charitable frame, and think that they can be solved by donating money to NGOs, when in fact they require intense political lobbying.

These are important issues with carelessly using celebrity advocacy. However, this does not mean that NGOs should discard the brand potential of celebrity advocates. Instead they should utilise them in alternative ways that harness their potential while minimising adverse impacts.

First, celebrities should not be used by themselves, they should be used in allegiance with locals and experts. This could result in more nuanced messages, with fully identified problems and more encompassing solutions.

Celebrities and their conservation causes

Second, celebrities are obviously unable to identify structural problems due to their positioning at the centre of consumer culture. Let more educated experts identify the causes of environmental problems, and use celebrities to enthuse audiences about possible solutions. These solutions should include ethical consumption and public participation, but should also include political lobbying. This would shift audience responses from reaching into their pocket to engaging in environmental politics.

Finally, don’t use celebrities in broad brush campaigns. As we have seen, the ‘popular appeal’ of celebrities is over-stated, so why do they continue to be used in target-less broadcasting campaigns? Social marketing has shown that targeting an audience is essential. Celebrities would be better used in narrow-casting. Local campaigns that reach out to identified audiences through more specialised media could benefit from celebrity involvement. This would not be as glamorous nor as high profile, but here celebrity advocacy would standout rather than fading into the background of the 3,500 marketing messages we see a day.

Using the ‘dark arts’ of marketing for the greater good?

Environmental destruction is no longer about chopping trees, it is about shopping sprees. The choices we make every day are a key driver of all major threats to the environment. Whether it is the number of children we have, the food we eat or the way we travel, it all adds up.

Traditionally conservation organisations have adopted the ‘pamphlet approach’, providing people with information so that they alter their behaviour. However, psychologists have shown that people have defence mechanisms against new information. Donald Trump specialises in denial, but resignation, emotional distancing and the delegation of solutions all coalesce to prevent knowledge about a problem translating into behavioural change. This creates a knowledge-behaviour gap which is difficult to cross. Even conservationists have hardly altered their environmentally damaging personal activities.

The simple understanding of the ‘pamphlet approach’ needs to be replaced by a more nuanced solution to this knowledge-behaviour gap. We need to ask crucial questions about why we make certain decisions and how we can influence our choices to be more sustainable. Social marketing could provide conservationists with the answers.

Social marketing uses commercial marketing techniques to understand and solve societal problems. The field originated in the 1960s and initially was largely focused on public health issues. For example, the truth® campaigns in the USA uses petitions, quizzes, events and posters to try and reduce the number of teenagers taking up smoking.

Social marketing underway with Rare

Social marketing can change how conservation problems and solutions are marketed in three key ways:

1. Targeting an audience.

Traditional conservation marketing efforts are often broad. ‘Flagship species’ – species which are considered popular and likely to receive public attention – are used to communicate environmental issues to the general public. A classic example of a flagship species is the polar bear. In 2009 the IUCN proposed ten additional species to ‘share the polar bear’s burden’ and communicate the global impacts of  climate change. The intended audience for this campaign was ‘the global public’. Targeting ‘the global public’ undermines the ability of these species to generate emotional responses, which are key to changing people’s behaviour. Behaviour changes are more likely if people think that a species is charismatic, a characteristic which is audience and culture-specific.  For instance, a hen harrier might be charismatic for a group of bird watchers, but may be a pest for game keepers and hunters. Flagships used at broad scales can ‘mutiny’ and undermine local conservation initiatives.

In Scotland, the water vole was mobilised as the flagship species for a project aiming to control the invasive American mink. The water vole is both ecologically important, culturally recognisable (Ratty from Wind in the Willows), and directly threatened by mink predation. The project supplemented the water vole with more locally relevant species threatened by mink predation. In coastal West Scotland, arctic and little terns were used as a local flagship species, while salmon performed this role in the East due to the ecological and economic value in nature and fishing tourism. This tactic was successful in ensuring public support, and enabled recruitment and retention of volunteers. Targeting specific audiences is essential for generating behaviour changes.

American mink

2. Knowing an audience.

Sea turtles are rated highly on both nature tapes and dinner plates. In São Tomé and Principe there is a long tradition of eating sea turtle meat, which has persisted despite a national ban on the take of sea turtles in 2014. Seeing as East Atlantic Ocean sea turtle populations are some of the most threatened in the world, it is important to bring about voluntary change in behaviours. The Associação Tartarugas Marinhas (ATM; Association for Marine Turtles) focused on coastal communities close to nesting beaches, who are crucial consumers and suppliers at a national level. They led an intensive research effort to understand their target audience, conducting over a thousand questionnaires and dozens of interviews. The result was the Mem Di Omali (mother of the seas) campaign.

Mem Di Omali aimed to build on the importance of family in this 80% Christian country. The campaign depicted the most visible and vulnerable stage of the turtles life cycle, when females come to beaches to lay eggs, as an act of care and motherhood. The campaign partnered with religious leaders to deliver this message at Christmas time, linking the journey of the sea turtles to that of the Virgin Mary. The campaign specifically targeted young men, whom the audience research showed were most often involved in turtle poaching. ATM put up posters around bus stops and bars where these men were known to congregate, and organised a football tournament endorsed by Benfica, the most popular team in São Tomé. While it is too soon to tell the impact of this campaign, it clearly shows how a research effort to better understand the target audience could assist conservation marketing campaigns.

Mem Di Omali music video

3. Focusing on less charismatic species.

There are millions of species on Earth, thousands of which are endangered. But if you ask a member of the public to name an endangered species, the likelihood is they will namecheck pandas, tigers, or another animal celebrity species. Conservationists often cash-in on these nonhuman celebrities, using them as flagship species to raise awareness and funding. But if companies can sell us devices that let us talk to our dogs and other products of late-capitalism, why can’t conservationists raise money to save Purple Pig-Nosed Frogs?

A recent study found that increased marketing could help less appealing animals raise money. When the relationship between marketing effort and money raised was modelled, increased marketing for the least attractive species resulted in a 26-fold increase in donations for those specific species. The range of species that conservationists can use to raise money can be expanded by using marketing techniques.

Purple Pig-Nosed Frog in all its glory

In a single day we are likely to see some 3,500 marketing messages. Social marketing puts public concerns on the same level as these private messages, enabling conservationists to better influence human behaviour. It could shift conservationist’s role from narrating the unfolding of the Sixth Mass Extinction to shifting the behaviour patterns which are causing it.