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Recent wildlife documentaries affect public understanding of wider conservation - University of Kent / Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology

Research led by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) has found that the personification of animals in recent wildlife documentaries leads to significant misinformation and creates problems for public understanding of wider conservation.

group of lions stalking towards the camera across parched long grass in Tanzania
These animals didn’t seem that scary coming up the hill at our truck. Until I realized they moved like a special forces squad, tactically deploying around our vehicle… (Jeff Lemond on unsplash)

In a research paper published by People and Nature, Professor Keith Somerville (DICE), Dr Amy Dickman, Dr Paul Johnson (both from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford), and Professor Adam Hart (University of Gloucestershire) argue that the portrayal of charismatic animals in nature films, while entertaining, risks the propagation of misconceptions about nature and conservation.

A common theme recognised through analysis was the portrayal of animals and their behaviour as though they have similar minds, motivations and personalities as people (anthropomorphism). Further to this, false jeopardy, where normal situations in animals’ lives are presented as though they are unusual and far more dangerous than they really are, was commonly used to create suspense.

Nature documentaries are ever popular for informing people’s knowledge of the natural world, and influencing their understanding of wildlife, species and habitats. Yet, with conservation increasingly relying on public support, the researchers stress the importance of people being presented with factually correct information through nature documentaries.

Professor Somerville said: ‘Natural history documentaries are the closest many will get to seeing featured animals and their behaviour in the wild. They are a significant source of information to highlight wildlife, conservation, and environmental issues. Therefore, it is critical that rather than framing ‘stories’ as soap operas to gain emotive impact, more focus is given to showing the true problems that exist in the natural world today.’

The research paper ‘Soap operas will not wash for wildlife’ is published by People and Nature. doi: 10.1002/pan3.10202

Posted on: 16 April 2021

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