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I Tweeted About It

After seven marathon days of projects, narratives, and figures, the World Parks Congress was winding down. The lessons from each stream were summarized, and a few master plenaries offered closure. One was dedicated to storytelling, a theme previously discussed by Clara Rowe in an earlier post. Panelists on this plenary were leaders in their respective communication fields: Beth Foster (Vice President of Communications for National Geographic Society), Thomas Friedman (award-winning journalist and author in the New York Times), Adrian Steirn (award-winning wildlife photographer), and Jeff Koinange (a host on the Kenya Television Network).

Their brief presentations under the heading “Inspiring Solutions – Communicating the Message and Stories for Protected Areas” were beyond refreshing, punctuated by stunning photography and fantastic anecdotes. Steirn used the example of telling the story behind the picture to distinguish a meaningful experience from just another snapshot. Presenting a stunning photograph of a leopard from Azerbaijan, Steirn made the point that without the story it’s just another nice photo of a leopard. He then described this particular leopard that they had followed for a considerable time, and this photo was her last as shortly after she fell out of a tree while protecting her cubs and broke her back. The nice photo became a haunting portrait of a dying species, of a mother.

Copyright Linda Holcombe

Another picture-story: A 4-month-old Mountain Gorilla explores the silver of his father’s back. The image is both touching and unsettling in context: as the baby explores, his mother glares at members of our tourist group who repeatedly ignored the rules and approached too closely. A few minutes later, she scooped up the baby and chuffed at those members, warning them to back up. Photo by Linda Holcombe

He also argued that “conservation is no longer compelling enough.” Facts and figures may be good science, but it doesn’t motivate people. This insight of Steirn’s was especially interesting given the audience had just sat through 7 days of the world’s top conservationists telling their story with text and graphs. Many beautiful photographs were shown on various Powerpoints throughout the halls, but there was the lack of narrative characteristic of science. In the sessions I attended, Sean Willmore (President of the International Ranger Federation and Founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation to help rangers and their families) and Lee White (Executive Secretary of the National Park Service in Gabon) wove exceptional narratives about the experiences of rangers in the field. But they were the exception. Most other presentations centered around solid information, good data, and accurate figures. They were informative to a fault, but infrequently inspirational.

Granted, the World Parks Congress is a meeting of peers. The data is very important in communicating results of various projects to like-minded organizations. I would imagine most were less in need of inspiration than they were answers to conservations persistent challenges. The narrative, however, is a powerful tool that should be better honed in order to garner outside support to find those answers.

Another stimulating topic touched on in the plenary was part of Thomas Friedman’s presentation. Channeling the modern conservationist, Friedman mimicked a phrase heard throughout the congress (and often at home): “I tweeted about it.” This drew a chuckle from the audience (at least those not buried in their computers busy live-tweeting). Friedman likened twitter activism to launching a “mortar at the Milky Way,” adding that social media has created a sort of “faux activism.” This was met by both applause and disagreement from the audience and panel. The benefits of social media for awareness-raising were incontrovertibly established and smart phones have arguably become the method of global communication. “The difference,” Friedman responded, “is in translating awareness into action. Many substitute awareness for action.”

Here is a space for the pictures I did not take as a result of giving the plenary my full, undivided attention. It was a beautiful experience. (Image courtesy of Clip Art)

In one of the few true debates of the congress, this topic was alive among the panel for at least 10 minutes. Admittedly, I tried out live tweeting at this congress. I was moved by both how addicting it was to receive notifications of favorites and retweets, to share my photography. I was also later saddened by how much I missed of these incredible presentations while composing 140 character sound bites on my computer. However the reader may feel about the place of social media in conservation efforts, it is hard to not be stirred by Friedman’s admonition to “get off Facebook and into someone’s face.”