Elephant conservation can be undermined by Twitter users who overlook key threats


The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the asian elephant (Elephas maximus) are all highly threatened species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has identified poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflicts as common threats to the species.

Addressing threats to elephants requires public and political will to act. As elephant conservation depends on international donors, elephant conservation requires the support of people in countries where elephants live as well as people around the world. For example, from 2010 to 2017, international donors provided $500 million anti-poaching programs across Africa.

What the public sees as the main threats to elephants impacts how conservation issues are prioritized and funded. But public opinions are informed by media coverage of conservation threats.

The reach of social media has helped bring attention to elephant conservation around the world. But if attention on social media is not aligned with the main threats to elephants, public support – and therefore political will and funding – can be misdirected towards issues and campaigns that do not benefit. not wild elephants.

In our new studywe analyzed tweets about elephants posted in 2019 to understand whether the most pressing threats – as identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – received the most attention.

We found that attention on Twitter did not match the most pressing threats. Habitat loss and human-elephant conflicts have received relatively little attention.

The study also highlighted a difference between people who lived in countries that had elephant populations and those that did not. Conflicts between elephants and humans were a significant problem for people living in countries with elephants. But it got little attention from people who didn’t live in areas where there were elephants.

Habitat loss received little attention from all Twitter users (less than 1% of all elephant tweets).

Our findings are concerning, as the lack of attention to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict may result in these issues being perceived as less important and, therefore, less likely to receive funding and attention from from decision makers.

elephants and people

Human-elephant conflict is a complex issue that often pits the livelihoods and security of local people against elephant conservation. Unfortunately, on social media, there is a misperception that elephants live in wild places without humans, and that conflicts only occur because people have encroached on elephant habitat.

In reality, elephants are not confined to protected areas but live in shared landscapes, where there are no fences to separate people and elephants. Research suggests that up to 70% of African forest elephants live outside protected areas.

Living with elephants comes at a high cost to local communities. For example, Botswana is home to the largest population of African elephants. With nearly 130,000 elephants, which spend a large part of their time outside protected areas, conflicts with populations are frequent. From 2009 to 2019, elephants killed 67 people in Botswana, more than any other wild animal.

In Asia and Africa, farmers stand to lose 10 to 15% of their harvests to elephants.

Communities living with elephants make great sacrifices for conservation. These sacrifices are rarely acknowledged on social media.

Blame and Resentment

Use of Twitter Academic Research Product Track, we downloaded all tweets posted on Twitter in 2019 that contained the word “elephant”. Then we read a sample of these tweets and recorded the country of the users and whether the tweet was about any of the major threats to wild elephants.

We found that tweets directly related to threats to wild elephants accounted for only 21% of all tweets. Poaching was the most frequently mentioned threat (13%), followed by human-elephant conflict (7%) and habitat loss (less than 1%).

Only 27% of tweets came from people living in countries with elephant populations. This meant that discussions of human-elephant conflict – and other issues most important to elephant range countries – were often overshadowed by Western Twitter users.

When human-elephant conflict was discussed, it was usually in response to the death of elephants. International media coverage of human-wildlife conflicts often depicts the communities as indifferent and blame them for the conflict. For example, a tweet said:

If humans don’t want elephants around their land, they shouldn’t move their farm right in the middle of elephant habitat. The elephants were there first.

We found that many Twitter users from countries with elephants disputed the attention given to elephant deaths versus the limited attention given to the impacts of elephants on local communities.

Online with a previous study, many African social media users have criticized Western users for putting wildlife life ahead of African people. For example, a tweet from Botswana read:

People are killed by elephants here every day. Breadwinners, parents leaving behind children… Batswana live in rural areas, who cares?

Next steps

Resolving human-elephant conflicts will become an even more pressing issue in the years and decades to come. Indeed, habitat loss is expected to accelerate due to climate change, forcing humans and elephants to growing conflicts over limited resources.

If people care about elephants and want to see them protected in the wild, they need to care about – and defend – the communities that live next to elephants.

Without the support of local communities, elephant conservation will not be possible. More inclusive conservation projects, which provide benefits for wildlife protection and the rights of communities to manage their wildlife, have increased support for conservation. In contrast, a lack of recognition of the costs of living with elephants and misperceptions about who is to blame for conflict threaten to undermine conservation efforts.

Conservationists – and social media users more broadly – need to challenge negative portrayals of local communities, raise awareness of the realities of life with elephants, and recognize communities’ rights to manage their wildlife responsibly. sustainable.

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