Raising awareness of widespread species declines

Jules Howard's experience of getting press coverage for widespread species decline proves it's not easy to make difficult decisions about which animals to save. 

Greenland shark, British wildlife, seals,

Saving puppies: On raising awareness of widespread species declines

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Okay, here’s a philosophical question for you.

Two dogs each have a litter of puppies. One dog has a relatively healthy litter, except one puppy is hideously skinny, weak and weepy-eyed – approaching death’s door.

The other dog has a litter of puppies that are all underweight and look a bit tired and lethargic. No imminent danger for her puppies, though they’re definitely malnourished.

Both dogs need help. If you could only help one, which one would you choose? The dog with the critically ill puppy, or the dog with a litter of underweight (but not yet starving) puppies?

Saving the critically ill puppy would make you feel better and undoubtedly give you a warm glow, but helping the litter of underweight puppies may save more lives in the long term, albeit in a less dramatic way.

Where would the public put its money do you think?

I find this conundrum troubling. My heart urges me to save anything with big doe eyes in imminent danger, but my brain tells me that helping the litter of underweight puppies could make more impact in the longer term. It’s a tough call.

Such are the two extremes of wildlife conservation. On one side you have efforts to save the species on death’s door, and on the other you have efforts to curb wider declines across a range of species.

Both matter, but I fear one side gets more of the column inches (the doe-eyed ill puppy). Is this just me?

For every snow leopard looking longingly at a camera, for every panda and Californian condor, there’s a host of species in general decline; cuckoos, common toads, adders, house sparrows. You know the ones.

These are the so-called ‘widespread species’. Sometimes it’s like they don’t exist in the public consciousness at all.

Making widespread species loss interesting to the general public

Spreading stories (getting column inches) about widespread species decline is hard work. How do I know? Well, I used to be a press officer for frogs, toads, news, snakes and lizards.

These are animals that still exist in populations throughout much of the country, but whose populations, one-by-one, are being roughed up (often called ‘death by a thousand cuts’).

They are the underweight puppies – they won’t all die out as a species anytime soon, but one-by-one their individual populations are suffering. For more information, see the latest report from NARRS.

It was a hard-sell encouraging newspaper journalists to cover stories about these animals. Thankfully, there were rational and understanding ears in the broadsheets (Times, Independent, Guardian), but getting through to the other (often more popular) papers was tough, often fruitless, work.*

If the red-tops wanted anything, they wanted stories about cute animals at death’s door – critically ill puppies – and didn’t want to hear about widespread declines. And it was interesting to hear why these journalists felt this way.

Their editors wanted stories involving charismatic animals (pandas with first names), not clipboard waving scientists (whose first names often go unmentioned) talking of amorphous populations and 10-year trends.

They wanted to print conservation stories where amazing, uplifting things were being achieved, not stories full of depressing facts and figures.

They wanted charismatic species (remember Knut the polar bear cub?) and charismatic people (ideally Sir David Attenborough), not graphs and maps.

Hilariously, a journalist said to me once, “Let me know if you ever have a story involving a parrot riding a unicycle”.

Why bother?

Ahh, you might be thinking, that’s just the British press for you. Let them get on with it, you might say.

Well, I disagree – their readers are a large proportion of the population. Ignoring them seems short sighted if we want a society where everyone understands and cares about the future of all wildlife in this country.

I worry that the bulk of the general public may end up thinking that the only animals and plants worth saving are the ones at death’s door. All animals and plants in decline matter, in the long term.

So let’s get creative when talking about widespread species declines. Let’s get our stories out there. Let’s name every single individual toad that dies on a road this spring.

Let’s wheel out the charismatic scientists or, better still, train up a fleet of new charismatic scientists (remember this?).

Let’s encourage a front-bench MP to dress for one day in a butterfly suit (complete with day-glo wings and pipe cleaner antennae) to highlight widespread butterfly declines.

As conservationists it’s our duty to push both sides of the story as much as possible – communicating the short-term wins and the longer term ideals, even if we have to modify the stories we tell a bit.

Now, where did I put that unicycle?

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*Realistically, it may have been that I was simply bad at my job.

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.