It was recently announced that the BBC intends to close its Wildlife Fund, a charity established in 2007 to gather donations to conserve the environments made famous by its wildlife documentary films. Since its inception, the Fund has raised nearly £3 million in donations, the entirety of which is used to support 87 global conservation projects, where an emphasis is placed on sustainable management which links conservation with the economic wellbeing of local communities.
Following George Osborne’s decision in autumn 2010 to freeze the licence fee for six years, the BBC is seeing its budget fall by 16 per cent, with resulting cuts to services outlined by Director General Mark Thompson in the Delivering Quality First report. The decision to cut the Wildlife Fund seems to be part of a wider remit of rationalisation, with similar small and politically weak initiatives under threat of closure. It appears that the BBC Natural History Unit has responded to the cuts by focusing on tangible programme outputs at the expense of the Wildlife Fund, despite its documented conservation benefits.
A petition has been set up in response to the decision, and has gathered 1700+ signatures since 27 July. The petition captures a key, current debate over the appropriate role of wildlife film-making in society. Wildlife film-making has been a source of debate lately as a result of One Life and WWF’s Astonish Me films, with commentators discussing their value in both economic and environmental terms. The arguments are likely to be familiar: do wildlife films portray a realistic representation of wildlife and their environments? Is there a risk of anthropomorphising animals through films? What do these questions mean for how the people engage with (and potentially support) the natural world?
There are at least two arguments that can be pulled out of this current debate to support the continuation of the BBC Wildlife Fund. First, whilst debates over the framing of wildlife in such films are likely to never resolve, the Wildlife Fund gives an opportunity to foster positive action for wildlife conservation through film, regardless of whether there is consensus on its appropriate representation of wildlife. For many people, wildlife films are the primary point of education about the natural world and with this engagement comes an opportunity to provide support for conservation initiatives.
The idea of how best to communicate environmental issues is a debate in flux. The success of environmental messages rooted in 'doom and gloom' imagery is on the wane (see, for example last year’s disastrous 10:10 'No Pressure' campaign), with public surveys revealing fatigue in the relentless communication of negative environmental messages. Despite their potential flaws, wildlife films may provide a positive alternative: encouraging the people to care about (and for) the environment by evoking wonder, awe and curiosity.
Second, and following on from this, the wildlife filmmaking industry may also be criticised for rarely providing adequate financial support for conservation initiatives in the locations used for filming. In other words, wildlife film makers ‘free-ride’ by making a profit on films in locations maintained by others, with little or none of this profit translating back to conservation. It could therefore be argued that by giving the viewer an opportunity to translate the virtual enjoyment of an environment into a donation towards its upkeep, the BBC Wildlife Fund already addresses this growing critical debate.
This argument isn’t perfect: it is uncertain whether donations received as a result of a particular film will be directly translated back into the featured environment’s conservation; and it doesn’t solve the underlying issue of ‘free riding’ film makers. However, what is clear is that the continuation of the BBC Wildlife Fund allows an - admittedly imperfect - wildlife film-making industry to encourage the conservation of environments it features, so promoting a more sustainable industry.
With this in mind, it seems short-sighted to close the Fund. The argument that its closure is a cost-cutting exercise appears weak – all administration costs are currently covered by Gift Aid donations, and it is run on a pro bono basis by BBC Natural History Unit advisors. As such, it is likely that any savings made from cutting the Fund are likely to be small. Further, a cautionary note – likely to be relevant to a broad swathe of similar proposed public service cuts – is that the BBC Director General Mark Thompson has stated that no further charities similar to the Fund are likely to be created. Such initiatives are so often difficult and time-consuming to create, and all too quickly closed.
To step back to this article’s wider point: the closure of the BBC Wildlife Fund represents the premature end of a model for how the BBC and other wildlife film-making organisations can support the environments they film through conservation initiatives. Wildlife films - from Planet Earth to Springwatch – provide an important, hopeful means for the public to engage with nature, and the Wildlife Fund provides a clear, innovative means of translating this engagement into tangible, cost-effective support for biodiversity conservation.
The petition against its closure can be accessed here:
Rob St John is a freelance journalist and researcher at Oxford University School for Geography and the Environment
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