Communication in Conservation — can words change the world?

Image source: The Rhino Orphanage, Instagram

Meet J’aime. J’aime is an 8 week old white rhino calf whose mother was killed by poachers a month ago. J’aime was stabbed three times on her back during the attack but was thankfully rescued and is now being taken care of at The Rhino Orphanage. Her caregivers spent nights by her side while she slept to help her get used to her new home and to let her know she’s not alone anymore. She’s now thriving in their care, her wounds have healed and she spends her days going for walks in the bush, drinking milk and playing with Mewie, the resident cat (there’s always a cat, isn’t there?).

How do I know all of this? I follow The Rhino Orphanage on Instagram and I get to see regular updates and photos of J’aime. I feel involved and invested in what happens to this rhino. If I had just read that there’s been another poaching at another park, I might not have felt as much. But I know J’aime’s story. And because of that, I’m in this. And if you’re reading this and a solitary tear is threatening to escape from the corner of your eye as you think about little J’aime and all that she’s been through, you’re in this too.

Bringing real stories to life is just one of the benefits of effective communication in conservation. Research shows that our brains are wired to understand and retain stories for a longer time than logic or facts. Stories resonate with us as we’re taken on a journey that persuades us to feel different and, perhaps, take action. This means that scientific data used in conservation should be translated into relatable stories to attract and engage the attention of the public — and the decision makers.

Conservation organisations have embraced digital communication to tell these stories. Global organisations such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy naturally have millions of online followers but it is the smaller, local non-profits that can have the biggest impact on social media. By crafting compelling and thought-provoking content that’s shareable, these organisations can build trust and connect to the communities they serve, increase awareness of the work they do, educate the public and attract sources of support and funding.

BBC Earth is harnessing the power of digital and connecting us to nature with the Real Happiness Project. The campaign involves a dedicated website, extensive social media content and a Facebook Messenger chat bot, Happybot, which sends you personalised videos of animals in their natural habitat, successfully illustrating their research which shows that a greater connection to nature can make us more happier — and promoting Planet Earth II, of course (second best thing I’ve watched this year.)

Online communication campaigns such as these don’t have to result in just passive engagement by the public — “slacktivism”, if you will. The goal, after all, is to inspire action. Digital media does this by enabling the rapid spread of environmental messages to amass the proverbial crowd and create a movement.

On Earth Day in April, the March for Science was held across over 600 cities around the world (including Durban and Cape Town, yay!) protesting the US government’s recently hostile policies against science as well as serving as a celebration of science. The march was planned on a Facebook group, which grew from just 200 members to 300 000 in less than a week. A movement, indeed.

So, can words change the world? It’s a lofty idea, yes. Conservation efforts need funding and government support, more than anything. But communication is the seed that grows the powerful roots of education and awareness needed to bear these fruit. And as a communicator with a passion for conservation, I truly believe we have a duty to tell the stories of those who can’t — to change their world for the better.