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A tribe for the uncharismatic

Viki Cramer - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On 30 May 2014, a small brown lizard died alone in her cage on a remote island.  The island was often in the news around this time but the media’s attention lay elsewhere, focussed on the detention of people rather than on this seemingly unremarkable lizard.  Yet Gump, as this lizard was known, was in all likelihood the last Christmas Island forest skink. Her death heralded the extinction of her species. Five years earlier, the last Christmas Island pipistrelle, a tiny brown bat with a squashed-up face and black mustard seeds for eyes, also died a mostly unmourned death.  

The Christmas Island blue-tailed skink is now likely extinct in the wild but, unlike the forest skink, it has a functional captive-breeding population. Image: Judy Dunlop (supplied).

Both of these extinctions were "predictable and preventable," stated Professor John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University in his plenary address to the Ecological Society of Australia's annual conference, held recently in Fremantle, Western Australia.

The extinction of species such as the Christmas Island forest skink and Christmas Island pipistrelle – uncharismatic species that most of us have never heard of, living in remote places we are never likely to visit – is increasingly viewed as inconsequential by both governments and the public, he argued. In both cases there was no public reporting of monitoring data showing the rapid decline of populations, nor was there any community engagement or advocacy on behalf of these species.

On the day that Professor Woinarski delivered his address, the Operation OBP team raised over $140,000 via the crowd-funding site Pozible to finance research and monitoring of the 14 orange-bellied parrots that remain in the wild in the forests of Tasmania.

Little explanation is needed, perhaps, of the reasons why a small brown lizard and small brown bat living on an island now most associated with human despair fail to capture the public’s imagination in the way that a brightly plumaged bird living on an island considered as home to some of Australia’s last great ‘wilderness’ does.

But if you believe, as Woinarski does, that we have a moral imperative to look after all species, then the fates of bats, lizards, insects and plants need to be raised much higher up in our national consciousness. They need to be brought closer to home, so to speak.

 *****

The ‘psychological distance’ with which we view environmental change is emerging as an important idea to explain the disconnect between the increasingly urgent warnings of scientists, particularly around climate change, and our seeming lack of concern as a general public to demand policy and action to mitigate these changes.

Psychologically distant phenomenon are those that are removed from our everyday experiences: in time, in geographical space, in social distance or the likelihood of an event occuring (the tongue-twistingly termed ‘hypotheticality’). Objects (or species) that are perceived to be psychologically close to us are viewed in more concrete terms that those that are psychologically distant, where our ideas around them become increasingly abstract.

In other words, we are much more likely to be concerned about what is happening directly around us, right now.

The role of psychological distance in wildlife conservation is only just beginning to be explored but, at face value, it does not bode well for little-known species in remote locations, even if their populations are on the brink of collapse. As social psychologists Yaacov Trop and Nira Liberman explain, the different types of psychological distance are interrelated, such that remote locations should bring to mind the distant rather than the near future, and unlikely rather than likely events. In other words, we always tend to associate a long time ago with a galaxy far, far away. Thus, the extinction of species in remote places is more likely to be perceived as an unlikely event that will not happen anytime soon.

Our perception of spatial distance may not reflect reality, because spatial and social distance are often confounded. I am a (admittedly anecdotal) case in point. As a resident of Perth, I live a long way from either Christmas Island or Tasmania but, according to Google Earth, Christmas Island is several hundred kilometres closer. I know several people who have worked on Christmas Island. I don’t know anyone who regularly travels to Tasmania. Yet, in my mind, Tasmania is ‘closer’. I regularly see positive images of Tasmania on TV; I can easily take my family there on a holiday and travel through its national parks. The flights to Tassie are cheaper, and a lot more frequent. Tasmania is part of Australia, geographically and culturally. Christmas Island seems an administrative outpost, far closer to Indonesia than the north-west of the continent. And then there’s the detention centre. For all the pull of the ecological wonder of Christmas Island – the ‘Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’ – my other perceptions around it push it further into the psychological distance. With distance comes abstraction, and with abstraction comes inaction.

*****

When I expressed my amazement at the incredible success of Operation OBP’s fundraising to a colleague, her response was succinct. “Birders.” The orange-bellied parrot has more going for it that simply being a pretty bird that lives close to the major population centres in the south-east of Australia: it has a tribe, and that tribe is the birding community. A shared passion for birds unites people from disparate geographical locations and social backgrounds. This feeling of psychological closeness can motivate acts of vicarious generosity, and the sense that one’s own actions are contributing to solving a collective problem may reinforce these positive feelings of closeness.

The orange-bellied parrot not only has a tribe, it has a ‘family’ of scientists who use social media to constantly communicate to the tribe how their money is being used for research and conservation. The extended family of scientists studying this and other ‘difficult birds’ have garnered the support of two nationally known cartoonists, and are well on their way to reaching the marketing nirvana of being recognised as a brand, rather than just a research group. Their brand values are hope and action, underpinned by good science.

The innate tendency of humans to view the world through our social ties can lead to the sort of unthinking tribalism that, in the past year, has been blamed as one of the causes of our descent into a post-truth world.  The success of Operation OBP shows that there are upsides to social closeness, to a thinking form of tribalism, that can galvanise an overwhelming response for a bird whose future is far from certain.

Many conservation biologists would argue that, with a wild population of 14 birds and a captive breeding population of a few hundred, the money donated to Operation OBP would be better spent on conserving species that are not yet listed as threatened. Professor Woinarski would argue otherwise. “We need to show that recovery [of endangered species] is possible and worthwhile,” he said.

Societies for the appreciation of reptiles and wildflowers exist, and a great many people are dedicated to them. Insects and lizards and plants are as colourful and as fascinating as birds. Yes, taking up birdwatching as a hobby is arguably simpler and more convenient than becoming an amateur herpetologist or botanist. But it’s not so much the hobby itself that is important. It’s how we, as enthusiasts, scientists and science communicators, create a sense of psychological closeness to uncharismatic species and the remote landscapes they live in. This requires creativity and emotion, not simply information. And the odd cartoon might help.

What do you  think?

Rachel Standish commented on 14-Dec-2016 07:28 PM
Great article Viki.
Viki Cramer commented on 15-Dec-2016 11:48 AM
Thanks Rachel!
Mark Holdsworth commented on 03-Mar-2018 05:06 AM
Great article. In the absence of of supportive tribes and families, this is where government needs to step in. All species are “owned” by the crown and they have an obligation to protect all values on our behalf. BTW - I live in Tasmania, I’m key expert on OBP and undertake conservation work on Christmas Island. I’m doing my bit.

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Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
Viki Cramer   PhD BSc
Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
Perth, Australia
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