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Do natural history films really raise species and conservation awareness?

A new study looking at the effects of natural history films on public awareness has shown that films do lead to increased interest in featured animals.

However, it also shows that the increased awareness does not necessarily result in increased conservation efforts.

So what’s the problem?

In 2016, the BBC’s Planet Earth II became one of the most popular nature documentaries to ever grace our TV screens. In its six episodes it featured 113 different species from every corner of the globe.

But just how successful was the show at raising awareness of these species?

According to a new study from a team in Ireland the answer is, very successful. Dario Fernandez-Ballon from University College Cork and Adam Kane from University College Dublin were the pair behind the project. Using data from Twitter and Wikipedia they found that Planet Earth II managed to seriously peak the public’s interest.

To start with, the pair looked at Twitter activity surrounding the show during and shortly after each episode. They looked at 30,000 tweets with the hashtag #PlanetEarth2 from across the series to see how many species were mentioned. Not only were almost all species mentioned at least once but there was also a positive correlation between the number of mentions of a species and its screen time.

This meant that the longer a species was featured the more popular it became. Next the study turned to Wikipedia to see if the number of searches for the species featured increased after the show.

This revealed that 41% of featured species had yearly peaks for number of searches on the day of the broadcast. Again these species were the ones who received the most screen time in each episode. So there was definitely a big peak in interest and awareness of the heavily featured species around the time the series was released. But what about long term trends?

Well, using Wikipedia again, the pair found that for 44% of species there was a higher number of searches up to six months after the series had aired. This meant that although there was much higher awareness of species in the short term, the show also had a longer lasting effect.

However, the study also looked at whether the increased species awareness led to increased conservation efforts by the public. By analysing the number of financial contributions to several wildlife charities before, during and after the show they found that it did not.

This may seem surprising considering public awareness is a big factor to conservation efforts. But it turns out that the main reason behind this is that Planet Earth II didn’t really talk about conservation at all. In fact, an analysis of the script showed that less than 6% of the script mentioned conservation themes. As a result, less than 1% of analysed tweets mentioned conservation and there was no difference in public awareness for safe, threatened or endangered species.

So just how successful was Planet Earth II if it increased species awareness but did little to nothing to help protect them?

It kind of feels like it only went half way to solving the problem. But this study shows that natural history films do actually work. They do what they are intended to and that is raise species awareness. If the script had more heavily featured conservation issues then there may well have been an increase in contributions efforts.

One of the BBC’s more recent series Blue Planet II was praised for how it tackled problems such as plastic pollution in the oceans and is believed to have significantly raised public awareness of the issue.

Unfortunately, there is also a trade off in heavily featuring conservation themes. If a programme talks too much about conservation it can seriously reduce the number of people watching it. There seems to be a fine line between educating and boring people. In their paper the authors note that “In urbanized societies that are increasingly disconnected from nature, communicating ecological and species awareness is crucial to revert the global environmental crisis”. So, perhaps raising awareness really is the best outcome from a show like Planet Earth II.

After all, encouraging a few individuals to donate to wildlife charities really isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. But widespread changes in awareness and opinion in members of the public can drive meaningful systematic changes.

About Harry Baker, the guest writer:

Harry is an up and coming scientific journalist and conservation enthusiast. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter and now runs his own blog, Marine Madness, looking at the weird and wonderful creatures of our oceans and the important issues that face them in a changing world. To find out more check out the site or follow him on twitter - @harryjpbaker.

Referenced study: