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Should wildlife films contribute to the conservation of the environments they film?

December 12, 2011

The Bird of Paradise: a favourite subject for wildlife filmmakers (Image: Wikipedia)

Ask many environmentalists to explain their early inspirations for becoming interested in the natural world and it’s likely that watching wildlife documentaries is likely to rank highly.  However, beyond sparking a warm, fuzzy engagement with the representations of the natural world found in such films, can the wildlife filmmaking industry do more to contribute to the conservation of the environments it features?

A new paper in the journal Science by BioFresh partner Paul Jepson at Oxford University and colleagues Kate Jones at Zoological Society of London, Steve Jennings at Oxfam and Tim Hodgetts at Oxford University suggests that media corporations that make and broadcast wildlife programmes and films should pay towards the cost of nature conservation.  It is suggested that this extra funding could come from innovatively extending the existing ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ funding mechanism.

The authors argue that the global conservation movement is critically underfunded, and there is a pressing need to find new and innovative funding for conservation initiatives. In the context of recent political focus on the value of the services that nature provides, it is suggested that global media companies that make money from wildlife films should pay for the environmental services they use in the same way other companies have begun to do.  This would provide a guaranteed and sustainable source of funds for conservation, in comparison to the currently fragmented and ad hoc contributions made by media corporations.

Media corporations would make payments to a conservation trust fund, which would be used to finance on-the-ground conservation, says the paper.  In return for this contribution, their wildlife films could carry a certification ‘kitemark’ similar to the Forest Stewardship Council or Marine Stewardship Council schemes.  In this way consumers could be guaranteed that they are supporting corporations that actively contribute to conservation.

It could be suggested that wildlife films already contribute to the environmental movement by raising awareness and promoting public engagement with environmental issues (see for example the recent Frozen Planet series).  However, the article argues that there is little empirical evidence to support this claim, instead suggesting that the proposed scheme gives a direct, clear link between a wildlife film and increased funding for the environment it features.

Dr Jepson concludes: ‘Our aim is to start a conversation.  We all love wildlife films and want to secure the fabulous environments where they are filmed for generations to come.  Rather than just leaving the audience with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the animals and places that have featured, we need to think about how we might harness the appeal of these programmes in an organised way that can benefit nature conservation. My hope is that filmmakers, broadcasters, academics and conservation professionals can come together to create innovative ways through which the wildlife media can pay for conservation.’

Dr Jepson continues: “From an academic perspective, our article has three aims.  First, to explore the boundaries of the ecosystem services framework: what entities is it feasible to apply PES principles to?  Second, to conceptualise new institutional arrangements for conservation governance and the potential to “blend” different approaches, namely certification and a capital asset trust.  Third, to draw attention to the under-researched nature of the relationship between the wildlife media and contemporary environmentalism.”

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