Exposing Atrocities, Blogs Give Wildlife Warriors Instant SOS

James Owen
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2006
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

Getting the message out isn't easy on the front lines of wildlife conservation.

News crews and other media are seldom on hand to spread the word of efforts to save endangered animals in remote tropical regions often ravaged by war, poverty, and disease.

Now conservationists are taking matters into their own hands, via their keyboards, in harnessing the power of the blog to attract headlines and much needed support.

One such blog, from central Africa, made the news last month.

In a posting on Congo Rangers—a blog for wildlife workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—rangers alerted the world to the massacre of hundreds of hippos by armed militiamen in Virunga National Park.

(Read "Hippos Butchered by the Hundreds in Congo Wildlife Park" [October 24, 2006].)

The posting also revealed the cost of the slaughter, and quickly. Results of an aerial census of the park's threatened hippo population were posted on the Web the same day the census was carried out.

Congo Rangers is one of a number of blogs that appear on WildlifeDirect, an initiative set up by the Africa Conservation Fund, based in Kenya and the DRC (Africa map).

The Web site provides a platform for conservationists working to protect African wildlife and wildlands under difficult and often dangerous conditions.

"We believe that the Internet provides an unprecedented means of bringing the remarkable efforts of African conservationists to the attention of the world," WildlifeDirect's director, Emmanuel de Merode, said.

Lives at Risk

Among those efforts is the work of wildlife personnel on the ground who risk their lives daily, according to Congo Rangers blogger Robert Muir of Germany's Frankfurt Zoological Society.

"It is vital that we try and give the rangers a voice, as their stories are not so much forgotten as never actually told," Muir said.

These rangers, he added, are "the last line of defense between hippos, elephants, [and] mountain gorillas and hundreds of militia, armed to the teeth and intent on killing the few animals that remain."

More than a hundred rangers have been killed in recent years in Virunga Park, a nearly two-million-acre (7.9-million-hectare) protected area.

The Congo Rangers blog, Muir said, "is a living record that gives these remarkable individuals an identity."

Conservationists elsewhere are likewise taking to the blogosphere to raise awareness.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UK (BOS) runs a blog from the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in the Indonesian section of the island of Borneo (see Indonesia map.)

The brainchild of BOS director Michelle Desilets, the Voices From the Field blog aims to get across "some of the daily trials and triumphs of working to save orangutans from extinction," she said.

One recent posting, reporting the impact of forest fires raging in the region last month, attracted tens of thousands of U.S. dollars in emergency donations, she noted. (See "Orangutans Displaced, Killed by Indonesian Forest Fires" [November 17, 2006].)

"Within 24 hours of the blog going out, we had 50 more men on the ground," she said.

"These very orangutans are alive today because of the power of the blog. It's a modern-day version of sending out an SOS," Desilets said.

Morale Boost

Giving conservation workers the chance to tell their own stories also helps to raise morale, Desilets pointed out.

"Our staff until now has felt very isolated and often bemoaned the fact that the outside world just didn't understand or care about what they were trying to achieve," she said.

The blogs serve as a line of communication for personnel working in remote parts of the rain forest, she explained, allowing the public to get to know individual staff members and rescued animals alike.

Despite the limited English skills of the Indonesian team, the postings are sometimes extremely poignant, Desilets added.

She quoted from a recent blog report from the region affected by the forest fires: "On Monday, we got one more orangutan. Her feet burned very bad. At Tuesday morning, the reporter from National Geographic come with one red-leaf monkey … infant baby. She looks dying. I was crying and asked: Why?"

Those who train conservationists and others who work in environmental sciences say blogging should be taught as an important communication tool.

Researchers at Oxford University's Centre for the Environment in England emphasized the point in an article published in the journal Science earlier this year.

Authors Alison Ashlin and Richard Ladle wrote that blogs "provide a communication platform of incredible power" and that they should be used to engage the public, "even to the extent of including blogging as part of a researcher's job specification."

Blogging, they added, is an excellent way to communicate the excitement of working and living in the field, potentially inspiring a new generation to serve on the front line of wildlife conservation.

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