Personally, I’ve been most shocked and engaged by conservation issues that I’ve witnessed first hand. Last year I travelled to Brazil and flew across country from Sao Paulo to Rio. Like any tourist, the flight was spent with my head by the window, I noticed how quickly the beautiful Atlantic rainforest was replaced by mines and agricultural land. Whilst I’d seen the TV documentaries and the stereotypical pictures of a flayed former forest, seeing with my own eyes had the greatest impact.
Whilst my own experience is quite anecdotal, I think this is how most of us think about conservation. As humans, we’re naturally drawn to remember or be challenged by things we’ve seen with our own eyes, be it a great game witnessed live, an amazing gig, or a wonderful sunset.
This is largely irreplaceable. However, conservation filmmakers recognise that not everyone has the time or money to travel to Brazil, Antarctica or the Serengeti. So how do we ensure that these people are aware of the threats facing the natural world, and more importantly, how do we help them care? I believe that it is conservationists’ and filmmakers’ duty to use the most immersive technology to take people to the frontline of conservation without the use of a plane.
In 2015, Chris Milk (founder of Within) dubbed virtual reality, or VR, the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ today in 2018 it’s a term that’s been quite overused and has become somewhat of a cliche. But the point remains: VR allows a viewer to connect with a subject like no other traditional media can. So whilst I recognise that no experience is as powerful as the one witnessed first hand, VR has the potential to be the second best. VR can allow you to comprehend the devastating impacts of deforestation as a trees disappear around you; VR can show you the horror of the pet trade; VR can show you the majesty of an African Elephant close up. It’s such an exciting tool for conservationists and filmmakers.
So let’s take a look at where VR has been used for the good of conservation.
One of the leaders in using VR/360° film for conservation are Greenpeace. They attributed a doubling in donor sign ups largely to the work of their VR films. By far the most famous example of increasing donations is Clouds of Sidra produced by the aforementioned Within; this film follows a 12 year old Syrian girl living in a Jordanian refugee camp. At a 2015 fundraising conference, the film was screened leading to $3.8 billion being raised. A further UNICEF fundraising program found that one in six people pledged donations after watching the film. This was twice the normal rate.
Sometimes the most influential 360° films don’t focus on the masses but more the right individuals, and this was certainly the case for Danny Copeland’s film The Mini Manta’s of Maria. Devil rays are facing extinction due to targeted and by-catch fisheries, with some species seeing regional declines between 50-99%, and with no limited international legislation to protect them. To change this, Danny’s 360° film partnered with the Manta Trust and Manta Catalog Azores with the aim to ‘win the hearts & minds’ of delegates at the CITES conference in Johannesburg in October 2016. At this conference, politicians and ministers from the world’s governments gathered to vote on proposals for certain species to gain international protection from wildlife trade – and devil rays were being considered for protection for the first time. The film was well received by over 350 delegates, and helped sway several nations into changing their voting stance in favour of protecting devil rays – ultimately helping push their proposal over the political finishing line, and securing enhanced protection from international trade for these vulnerable, charismatic animals.
Altering Conservation Attitudes
Experiments from Stanford University have shown how virtual reality can be used to change people’s emotions and subsequent buying habits. Participants in a Stanford study donned a VR headset and became a cow in an intensive agricultural system. After witnessing the treatment that cows suffered participants were to reported to have had reduced meat consumption. Other studies have shown that using the embodiment of an animal in a virtual experience might be an effective tool to promote involvement with environmental issues. There are plenty of further examples of 360° film being used to change opinions, whilst the evidence is somewhat anecdotal, the signs are exciting.
Read our next blog post to see how Biome’s own experience has been using VR for conservation (released soon).