Lessons Learnt at the 2019 Conservation Optimism Summit

September 04, 2019

This week I was lucky enough to attend two days of the Conservation Optimism 2019 summit at the University of Oxford in partnership with Synchronicity Earth. The conference was filled with inspiring films, workshops and plenaries, and I met so many interesting and welcoming people. Here I wanted to give an overview of the key messages I took away with me.

What is Conservation Optimism?

Our mission is to help tell and amplify these stories of conservation optimism — and to provide tools and resources to empower people from every walk of life to take action for conservation. 

Conservation Optimism was founded two years ago by E.J. Milner-Gulland, a professor at the University of Oxford, with the help of a passionate team of researchers and communicators. It is a movement to inspire people around the world to get involved in conservation and avoid falling into the trap of environmental doom and gloom. Conservation Optimism is inclusive and values everyone, no matter your experience, background or age.

This year was their second summit, and it aimed to explore what works in conservation, the links between mental health and conservation, and how we can incorporate arts to reach a diverse range of audience.

Too many conservationists, too much science    

This sentiment cropped up a lot over the two days in presentations, workshops and individual discussions. Research is obviously a vital part of conservation and should be celebrated, but we need other sectors besides academia to ensure we get our message across in the most effective way. One of the reasons the summit was so interesting is that it brought together various disciplines so that there was a focus not just on the science but also wildlife photography, film making, storytelling, campaigning and videography.

Under the Skin aim to shine a light on extinction through creating prints focusing on endangered species and contributing to the efforts of grassroot charities.


Art and photography can bring emotional truth to conservation that science cannot.
- Robin Moore

Art and communications are necessary to reach an audience outside the realm of academia. Peer reviewed papers and statistics are extremely useful, but they won't inspire in the same way as a stunning photo of an endangered species or a video about a conservation project that you can contribute to.

Creating engaging campaigns

Taking it a step further, how do we use these different talents and approaches to create effective campaigns that captivate our audience and inspire them to act? 

Robin Moore gave an incredibly funny and engaging presentation about his work. You have probably already heard of Romeo the Sehuencas Water Frog who captured the world’s attention last year through a campaign to find his Juliet.  

Image - Romeo's twitter page

Romeo was brought into captivity in Bolivia in 2009 for a conservation captive breeding program. However, the team faced a challenge when they were unable to locate a female of the same species and Romeo spent 10 years alone in the aquarium. 

This all changed when Global Wildlife Conservation and match.com teamed up and gave Romeo his very own online dating profile. In 2019, the team located the species and found a female perfect for Romeo! The species is at risk of extinction, so the hope is to eventually return individuals from the breeding program back into the wild. 

An innovative and amusing method of fundraising.

This campaign quickly went viral and raised $25,000 for the project! It shows that not taking ourselves too seriously, thinking outside the box and using the unexpected is key to engaging a wide audience and inspiring them to get involved.

Giving the frogs names, and those of popular characters that people recognise, also ties in with ideas from Millie Kerr and Sean Southey who discussed the idea of naming species to engage a wider audience by creating a 'character'. Scientists often dislike this idea as they are concerned about anthropomorphising, but it is an effective way to target a non-scientific audience. Millie and Sean both cited the example of Cecil the lion. There was outrage around the world when he was killed in Hwange National Park in 2015. Animals are killed everyday, why did he get so much attention? Was it because he had a name so it felt more personal?

Bringing the message home

A creative and interesting idea can still fail if you don't plan properly, so it's important to have a strategy. Sean Southey gave a workshop about effective storytelling and encouraged us to 'enter through the heart, stimulate the mind and encourage change in behaviour'.

Knowing your audience is essential to successfully get your message across. You should consider:
  • - Are your audience already familiar with the topic, or are you introducing them to it? Making the message too complex to understand is alienating.
  • - Would your audience respond better to facts and figures or a more visual approach? Can you incorporate more than one format? Reinforcing your message will reach more people.
  • - How will you distribute your message? Where are your target audience? Are they active on a specific social media platform? Do you have the resources to target print, radio and TV? Are you targeting a specific region or culture?
Tone is important. People respond well to positive messages which show them what they can do to help. If it's too negative and seems that nothing can fix things then your audience will be uninspired to act.

Encourage engagement. The Romeo the frog campaign is a perfect example. They created a hashtag and twitter accounts that people could follow, interact with and easily share. Aim for your content to spark discussion.

Celebrating failure 

Sometimes things go wrong or don't have the outcome that we were hoping for. Conservationists are constantly dealing with failure so it's important that we learn how to be more resilient, learn from our failures and move on toward success. I attended a fascinating workshop by Allison Catalano who is currently researching failure in conservation.

We discussed our own failures to understand how to communicate them more effectively. It's important to take responsibility, focus on what we learnt through failing, and what we can do next. When listening, it's imperative to avoid judgement, to not try to solve the problem unless asked to, and to recognise the courage it takes for someone to share their failure with you.

It was refreshing to hear people discuss their failures openly when it's a topic that is often kept private. If conservation is to succeed we should be open about our failures so that others can avoid making the same mistakes.

Allison is an author of a recent paper on conservation failure which you can read here.

Feeling inspired to focus on more conservation optimism? Check out the latest monthly good news post here!

1 comment

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