As originally published in Skoll World Forum.
The response to the death of Cecil the lion in July was unique: after all, every year 600 lions are hunted legally, with minimal protest. After the initial backlash, a serious debate about wildlife conservation swept the world. For conservationists, this was an unexpected and welcome turn of events.
It is easy to dismiss the outrage around Cecil’s death as a fad, simplistic or hypocritical, but it would be a shame to let the lessons learned from the response go to waste. We should look for intelligent, pragmatic, and creative ways to apply what we’ve learned to support global wildlife conservation.
Whether through habitat loss, climate change or poaching which contributes to the world’s 4th largest illicit trade, a staggering number of wild animals are being lost. Wildlife conservation is struggling; apart from pockets of public and private support, the life of an endangered orangutan in Indonesia, for example, has no place on the majority of people’s agendas.
For conservationists it is nearly impossible to juggle all the competing priorities: saving biodiversity, addressing systemic causes of environmental and social influences on habitat, and making people care enough to raise the funds needed to do their work. Cecil’s death has managed to put wildlife on the world’s radar, something that endless campaigning has been unable to do.
There is a bond between animals and people and it begins when we are children. All our stuffed toys, children’s books, cartoons, and movies are centered around animals. None of us, as children, would have knowingly done anything that would result in wild animals dying. Somewhere along the way many of us lose this feeling, until a Cecil or Satao captures our imagination again.
So what was it about these animals that made us care again, even though tens of thousands of animals are dying similarly, or even more brutally, every year?
While Cecil was indeed a beautiful animal, being tracked as part of a study, well known in Zimbabwe, and the story of his death was quite brutal, these were just contributing factors. The real difference is in the name. Luke Donald, program director for National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative recently wrote that when animals become well known to people, as Cecil did, it “becomes easier to relate to them and communicate their tales, which creates an additional draw for tourism and human interest.”
Humans naturally gravitate toward things they can assign human qualities to, and simply putting a human name on Cecil made him more relatable, allowing him to become a celebrity of sorts. If he didn’t have a name, a cute one at that, there would have been far less attention.
When you hear about elephants dying or dolphins being slaughtered, it touches a chord. But except for the most committed conservationists or wildlife enthusiasts, it is soon forgotten. We simply don’t have a way of further connecting with those animals or feeling that we have a stake in their survival. We find it sad that they are disappearing, but it seems too far away for us to get involved.
Real-time, tangible evidence is what makes people pause. I am lucky to live in a place where I can witness firsthand the magnificence of a mountain gorilla, and also experience the trauma and moral outrage of seeing the carcass of an elephant shot by poachers. I have a bond with these animals, but transferring that sentiment to others is very hard.
I started Internet of Elephants to apply technology to facilitate that bond.
I want to see a world in which we care about animals on a daily basis – what they do, where they go, who they meet, and whether they survive. A world where we have a vested interest in their survival; where, when their lives are interrupted, so too are ours.
We have used technology to create stronger connections between people across the world and it has changed the way we interact, both with those we know as well as those we don’t. There are opportunities for us to make the same connections between people and individual animals. Our attention and reaction to Cecil seem to indicate that we are eager for that connection.
At Internet of Elephants, we are incorporating these lessons into our solutions. Technology can give more power to the conservation sector by building a stronger connection between a global audience and wild animals. Big data can empower the masses to help the cause, and to raise funds from avenues that have not previously been explored.
Animals such as Cecil and hundreds of others are already being tracked with the help of ever-advancing GPS collaring technology. Through educational and competitive games, and interactive visualization of data about animal movements, we are building solutions that bring these animals into our classrooms and into the palms of our hands.
If this technology had been deployed sooner, we think the world could have been as enthralled by Cecil’s life as they were by his death.