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Effective communications for conservation

From conserving endangered species to confronting climate change, natural resource management and conservation requires effective education and communication to achieve long-term results in our complex world. Research can help natural resource managers understand how to strategically use different outreach techniques and to promote new behaviors by involving and targeting their diverse audiences.

In addition to addressing traditional constituents, such as hunters and anglers, natural resource agencies must now communicate effectively with new stakeholders, from birdwatchers to animal welfare groups and the general public. Scientists must be able to communicate the need for renewable energy, for example, among stakeholder groups with different political backgrounds and understanding of the science of climate change. The toolbox for communications includes traditional methods such as interpretive walks in national parks, as well as social media campaigns using Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Survey research conducted by The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication revealed six different segments in the US, characterized by their views on climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive, with the largest number of citizens falling in the concerned and cautious categories. Conservation organizations can harness such findings in the design of outreach campaigns that resonate with the values of different groups.

What about the majority of the people on the planet who live in urban areas? Many urban residents have little direct knowledge of the ecosystems on which they depend on or even the value of nature to their own mental and physical health. They may be fearful of nearby natural areas and may not choose to protect them from development or visit them for fun. Yet these residents vote, pay taxes, and need nature as much as anyone. And nature needs them. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently launched a national Urban Wildlife Conservation Program to encourage refuge staff near urban areas to engage their surrounding communities with new programs and services. This program helps staff learn about their nearby communities, develop relationships, meet community needs, and assess the refuge activities.

Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park in 2010 by Varnent. CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park in 2010 by Daughter#3. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

New technologies also allow agencies to develop citizen science projects to harness data collected by stakeholders to help advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science programs can inform the public about specific wildlife or processes they are observing while helping scientists implement projects that yield both scientific and educational outcomes. Developing effective programs to attract new constituents to natural resource conservation requires training and collaboration to address issues of concern to citizens as well as scientists. Participating citizen scientists in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Great Backyard Bird Count have gathered more than 100,000 checklists that included 623 bird species and provided critical information for scientists about avian migration patterns and climate change in North America.

In addition to engaging various publics in the outdoors, communication tools can harness the power of social media. An iPhone app for reporting different mammal species killed on Britain’s roads was developed by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. The social media presence of environmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy helps to direct viewers to its website, increase awareness of its work, and generate members. The power of social media can be seen in the global outcry against the man who admitted to killing Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion. The hashtag #CecilTheLion appeared almost 250,000 times in one day on Twitter as the topic trended worldwide in July 2015. Resource agencies must determine how they want a message to be received, and understand how the message is spread by social media, encoded by media gatekeepers, or decoded and interpreted by the receiver.

From wilderness parks to urban refuges, natural resource managers must engage a variety of publics in understanding and practicing conservation actions. The tools for effective communication depend on the audience and information needs, but the resources are available to identify a strategic approach to education and outreach for conservation.

Featured image credit: Rakaposhi and Diran, Pakistan, by Waqas.usman. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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