Can Storytelling Save Wildlife?

This article appeared on National Geographic’s website on April 4, 2018. To read the article there, click here.

People have been telling stories since before Homo sapiens mastered language, and, whether we realize it or not, we hear and tell stories every day. Stories come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are bound by their ability to help us understand the world and our place in it. Since they deliver emotional impacts, stories have the power to cause people to change their minds.

Last month, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published “Using Story to Change Systems,” in which author Ella Saltmarshe identified three core qualities through which “all sectors can use [stories] to change systems: story as light, as glue, and as web.” In a nutshell, this means that stories can spotlight faults in a system while drawing attention to bright spots where positive change is either already happening or envisioned for the future. Stories also bring communities together by engendering “empathy and coherence”; we’re far more likely to understand another person’s position when emotions and narratives are involved. And, finally, stories build webs that help us rewrite our own personal narratives, not to mention cultural and mythic frameworks.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Jonathan Gottschall

With the environment in crisis and wildlife suffering from the Sixth Great Extinction, conservationists must learn to use stories to bring awareness to environmental declines while helping people understand the planet’s precarious position and how we are part of problems and solutions. In recent years, conservationists, most of whom train as scientists, have begun to recognize the importance of communication and storytelling—an important step for a community that once scoffed at the idea of communicating with the general public (during a September 2015 speech in San Antonio, Texas, which I attended, Jane Goodall shared that the University of Cambridge was incredibly disappointed when she revealed that she planned to publish the results of her PhD with an outlet that targeted the masses).

Things have changed dramatically since then. In 2015, the University of Cambridge admitted me—a lawyer-turned-journalist with no scientific education beyond high school—to its Conservation Leadership master’s program. During the yearlong course, I heard countless lecturers discuss the need for improved conservation communication, so I decided to write my dissertation on what I call “conservation storytelling.”

My general observations about narrative align with Saltmarshe’s, but I worry that intellectual discussions about something as complex as storytelling border on the esoteric, which is especially problematic for conservationists who’ve studied conservation biology instead of literature or creative writing. “Scientist storytellers,” as author Randy Olson calls them, need practical guidance for mastering the art of storytelling,

 I spent many frustrated hours in the University Library trying to come up with a simple definition for “story” and eventually realized that the concept is too elusive to be instructive. Instead, I parsed out elements that make stories successful:

Compelling narratives:

  1. Enchant and inspire wonder;
  2. Show, don’t tell;
  3. Feature change, drama, and tension;
  4. Feature clear characters that are ideally relatable;
  5. Depict a hero overcoming obstacles—sometimes on a quest;
  6. Pit good against evil using protagonists and antagonists; and
  7. Engage the listener.

Although it’s helpful to consider these features when crafting a story, the seven elements are not intended to operate as a checklist: in fact, some may be mutually exclusive (a story featuring protagonists battling antagonists may not have the ability to enchant and inspire wonder). There are different kinds of stories, each with its own time and place, and a storyteller’s expertise and nature influence his decision to pursue a particular tone. David Attenborough, for instance, trades on approachability and wonder; though his documentaries often feature drama, I would argue that stirring enchantment is his greatest gift.

To understand how the above techniques operate in conservation, I looked to recent conservation narratives. Documentaries were an obvious starting point since they’re among the most popular science and conservation stories of today, plus they employ all of the core elements. At their core, they tend to enchant and inspire or play on conflict. Universal narratives—like life, death, and family ties—connect human viewers to animal characters even when films don’t contain clear protagonists. But while drama sells, networks like the BBC Natural History Unit—which is committed to educating in addition to entertaining—must watch out for sensationalism of the kind on display during Shark Week. Though appealing, shock-and-awe programs often reinforce negative stereotypes about animals, which may reduce public interest in conserving endangered species.

A notable example of a single story that engaged citizens and encouraged them to tell their own versions of the original narrative involved the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer. Oxford University’s WildCRU analyzed traditional and social media in reaction to Cecil’s death, finding “an unprecedented media reaction” spanning the globe. WildCRU believed that Cecil’s story resonated because: an identifiable villain killed the big cat; Cecil died a slow, painful death; the main reaction to his shooting was anger, which causes more social media sharing than sadness; and, finally, Cecil was a majestic, well-studied animal with an English nickname.

Researchers often dislike naming animals since the practice anthropomorphizes them, but Cecil’s case proves that people respond to animals with human names. And why wouldn’t they? We’re accustomed to calling one another by name, and names are easier to remember than a string of characters. Media outlets took Cecil’s personification a step further by focusing on the fact that his death would likely lead to the death of his offspring. They, perhaps subconsciously, made us realize that Cecil wasn’t just a lion: he was a father. Although some conservationists support trophy hunting, everyone seemed to vilify Palmer. Perhaps this stemmed from the circumstances, or maybe it was strategic: dramatic headlines hook readers, some of the best stories pit good against evil, and conservation organizations stand to benefit from public outrage.