Can pictures of wildlife connect us to nature?

A new study led by conservationists at Kent suggests that while animal imagery can drive greater concern for nature, we need to think carefully about the types of images we use and the messages we are sending.

Inspired by the adage ‘a picture is worth a 1000 words’, researchers from the universities of Kent and Oxford and the National Geographic Society conducted a review of 37 published studies looking at how people respond to images of animals. From this, they learned that images of animals can have positive effects on our attitudes to them, altering our emotional responses and willingness to protect them.

However, since people are more willing to support an animal they find aesthetically pleasing (reflected by a general bias in conservation towards flagship species such as polar bears or tigers), with some evidence of greater conservation donations given to species whose images elicited stronger emotions, it is crucial we use imagery effectively to enhance conservation efforts more broadly.

The study also explored the human emotional and cognitive response to images of animals, and how this varies across cultures, geographies and demographic groups. Here, the team discovered that most previous studies focused on a narrow subset of Western audiences. Laura Thomas-Walters, a PhD student at Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation, and the lead author of the study, described these research subjects as ‘typically Western, educated, and from industrialised, rich, and democratic countries’.

She explained that this lack of diversity is an issue as there can be substantial variability in responses across cultures. ‘For example, if we want to persuade a businessman in Vietnam to stop using rhino horn, research conducted on American college students may not be much help.’

She also explained that ‘conservationists need to think carefully about what impacts the images they use may have on audiences. Commonly used climate change symbols such as polar bears and melting ice caps for instance may be easily recognised, but they frame climate change as a far-away issue, remote from everyday behaviour‘.

They team also scrutinised the ways in which such images are presented and disseminated and how they can be used more effectively by conservationists.

Dr Diogo Verissimo from the University of Oxford, said: ‘In a world where the internet is increasingly diving the use of video and photography to communicate, conservationists need to be able to use these media if our message is to cut through the clutter of the thousands of messages we see every day. To achieve this, we need to be better at understating how indicators such as likes, retweets, or even online pledges, actually translate to real world behaviour change.’

Dr Claire McNulty from the National Geographic Society added: ‘We know that using images of wildlife is a powerful way to connect people to nature. However, given the current ecological crisis, it’s crucial to understand how to go one step further and encourage concrete action to protect our natural world.’

A scoping review into the impact of animal imagery on pro-environmental outcomes’ is published in the journal Ambio.