An ode to Britain’s Got Talent

Wildlife writer Jules ponders a message from a very special little girl and wonders how we can inspire a greater passion for wildlife in all of us.

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Here’s something you don’t hear every day - people, normal people, talking about nature conservation while waiting for a bus. But yes, I definitely heard it.

They were talking about the little girl on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this month (don’t pretend you didn’t watch it).

Her name was Olivia Binfield, a seven year old. She was the one who made an impassioned poetic plea for society to care about, and protect, wildlife from extinction – with a snake around her neck. Here she is:

 
 
 
Okay, so she didn’t make it through to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, but regardless of your feelings about pet snakes and whether she wrote the poem or not, this was quite a media coup for the wildlife conservation sector.
 
11 million people had a 60 second advert piped into their living rooms explaining why wildlife matters, and how it’s the next generation that may suffer from our societal side-lining of nature. Well done Olivia! I actually got a bit emotional, if I’m honest.
 
So, yes, back to those old ladies waiting for that bus, talking about this little girl and nature conservation as if they discuss it every day. I call these situations ‘Post Office Nature Moments’, wildlife discussions by non-wildlife types in public earshot.
 
Post Office Nature Moments are rare. In fact I can only think of one or two in the past 10 years. One was love-him-or-hate-him Steve Irwin’s death (I heard people discussing this on the Tube). Another was, more recently, the BP oil disaster (while waiting for my MOT).
 
Both were big stories, but what of other wildlife stories? Why have I never heard Joe Public talking about the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin, or an IUCN red-list press release? Has anyone? No, me neither. How sad.
 
With a sixth mass extinction looming, I think that creating more Post Office Nature Moments is quite important.
 
If you imagine a society where Post Office Nature Moments are plentiful, you’re sharing the same dream as most of the UK’s wildlife conservation organisations (check their vision statements). Namely, they want a society that respects animals and cares for the wild places in which they live.
 
So, we need more Post Office Nature Moments. But how?
 
A plea for passion…
 
I have a little bit of experience of creating Post Office Nature Moments. Well, actually I have no experience of creating them, but I have lots of experience of trying to create them.
 
I was a press officer for frogs, snakes and, for a while, birds. My dream was to produce wildlife stories that would be talked about on sofas, in coffee shops, in the Houses of Parliament and in hairdressing salons everywhere. Sadly, I failed on most counts.
 
On reflection, I didn’t inject enough human passion. I realise this now. Passion matters. In fact, passion may be one of our most powerful weapons in the fight to grab more of the public’s attention about wildlife issues. Olivia Binfield had loads of it. If you’re passionate, people sit up and listen.
 
I wish I’d known. When I was a press officer and I was asked by a radio presenter why frogs were worth saving I give two classic responses, neither of which were particularly passionate. They were:
 
  1. Frogs are worth saving because they are 'canaries in the coalmine'. Their presence reflects the general health of our wetlands.
     
  2. Frog habitats provide us with ecosystem services, like clean water, plus frogs eat pests. Their loss is our economic loss.
 
Listen out for this type of response when you hear nature conservation discussed on a radio programme. Lots of conservationists use science-based arguments like this.
 
And these arguments for saving species are largely right, and (for many species) scientifically valid. I sometimes wondered if a bit of personal passion could have helped to get the message across better.
 
What I wish I had added was this: “Frogs are worth saving because they’re really weird, they make me laugh and they remind me of my childhood”. Would that have made Mr Public sit up and listen? I suspect it might.
 
It’s a message that people understand. Human emotion: happiness, laughter, loss, regret.
 
People buy people
 
Yes, more and more I’m listening out for this. A bit of human passion definitely goes a long way in helping us announce our wildlife stories to a wider audience.
 
Could it be that this is one reason why the death of croc-loving Steve Irwin led to a Post Office Nature Moment, but the imminent extinction of the gharial crocodile isn’t? Possibly.
 
Attenborough. Irwin. Little girl reading a poem with a snake around her neck. Passion lubricates the ear canals of the public, opening them up to the wider (more science-based) wildlife conservation message that it’s so important for us to tell.
 
So, press officers and scientists of the world unite! Tell radio presenters why you really want to see species saved! It’s because they amaze you.  It’s because you have loving memories of them. It’s because you hate the thought of a world without them.
 
“People buy people” my dad often says. Well, on the evidence of Britain’s Got Talent, I’d be tempted to modify this phrase: “Wildlife conservation stories by people buy people”. 
 
So here’s to passion and, dare I say it, next year’s Britain’s Got Talent. I, for one, will be watching and learning how it’s done.
 
 

Jules is a wildlife conservationist and writer, who is particularly keen on seeing more people interested and committed to helping avert a sixth mass extinction. He runs a social enterprise that helps teachers and pupils to connect with wildlife, working closely with wildlife NGOs. To visit his website click here  or to follow Jules on Twitter, search for @juleslhoward.

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