Should We Always Share New Conservation Discoveries?

Wildlife Conservation can be an inherently downbeat field, dogged by constant and sometimes apparently unbeatable threats such as climate change, overpopulation and corruption. Whilst vast numbers of species are threatened by extinction and conflicts wage against how best to save them it has become important to celebrate the wins no matter how small. I am a huge supporter of sharing conservation successes which is why a recently resurfacing article on the environmental website Mongabay got me thinking about when is the right time to share?

Titled Has WWF Just Condemned The Last Rhino In Kalimantan? The piece written in 2013 by Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist with over 20 years experience explores the potential detrimental impacts WWF-Indonesias press release may have.

With rhino horn such a high-profile prize for poachers the risk to any known rhino population is immense; something which hasn’t changed since 2013. The threat to their security is actually so great that your Instagram pictures have the potential to aid poachers with the use of geo-tags. So you can imagine what a poorly worded press release may do to reveal locations and threaten valuable species.

So with the news last month that there was a population of Sumatran rhinos still existing within Kalimantan, have conservationists unwittingly turned poachers heads towards a critically endangered species? It wouldn’t be the first time. In Vietnam, 1989 a small herd of rare Javan Rhinos were discovered. Before then it had been thought that they were extinct on the island, so this obviously made big news and led to the establishment of the Cat Tien National Park. However insufficient protections and their high profile status saw the entire population poached in just over 20 years.

I would hope that with this lesson as well as the current rhino poaching crisis, conservation organisations have learnt the importance of on-the-ground protections. With the announcement of the rediscovery of rhinos in Kalimantan also came the announced creation of a sanctuary to protect them. Hopefully the announced increase in anti-poaching patrols will also occur around this sanctuary as the press release revealed the location of it, something which is potentially dangerous.

Of course it would be so easy to say we should keep these discoveries a secret. But how can you expect to engage people about wildlife conservation and get them to care if they never find out about these hidden populations or miraculous births.

You can almost use the same theory that zoos use; people love the big megafauna such as elephants and gorillas as well as babies. These then act as the pull to get visitors through the door and help with the conservation of other less charismatic species. Humans love baby animals, they love successful conservation stories; in fact many people have written about how we are disengaging with conservation due to being flooded by negative stories of extinction. Moreover how can you expect to raise money for something the regular public don’t know exist?

Publicity plays a crucial role in conservation; whether its news stories or TV programmes. The documentary Blackfish played a huge role in reinvigorating cetacean conservation (for better or worse) and garnered a huge political movement by reaching a massive audience. Political support is often important especially in securing funding.

Funding which then helps to provide effective protections required because the publicity generated has set the poachers radar alight. It truly is a double-edged sword and one which conservation organisations must consider carefully.

In my honest opinion, it should probably be the option of conservation organisations to take a more discrete approach when revealing finer details such as locations but this should also be used as educational. The wider public should be reminded that we do not tell you this because there are these very real threats.

As far as withholding discoveries go; that in a way shoots the conservation movement in the foot. We are at a point where more people care than ever about wildlife conservation why would you remove the public support base from huge discoveries? If we constantly bombard people with negative stories we stand to isolate and remove their support. Something conservationists want about as much as the threat of poaching.


Featured Image by the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary

You can find out more about saving the Sumatran Rhinos and how you can get involved here: International Rhino Foundation

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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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