Googling trends in conservation interest

Have people lost interest in conservation?

Working in tropical forest conservation science can be disheartening. To steer away from pessimistic thoughts, I always go back to a few hand-selected, bullet-proof examples of true conservation success, like the huge reduction of deforestation in Brazil. But even these unquestionable success stories are starting to seem extremely fragile, under the new political climate of many countries (read more about the fires in the Amazon for example here).

Witnessing numerous setbacks in environmental protection in early 2017, together with my co-authors David Wilcove, professor at Princeton University, and Rhett Butler, the founder and CEO of Mongabay.com, we started asking ourselves if it’s really true that people care less about conservation and the environment than before. We also often heard the opinion that the limited amount of time people have to think about the environment is dedicated almost exclusively to climate change, displacing any interest in biodiversity conservation.

A map showing where searches for ‘conservation’ on Google have been on the rise over the last decade.  Darker blue means higher increase.

To find out, we used Google Trends to see how many people Google words like ‘conservation’, ‘species extinction’, ‘climate change’, and so on. There has been a huge increase in the number of people that can access the Internet and that have begun using Google in the last decade. That’s why Google adjusts its Google Trends in various ways to take these changes into account, which is useful for other scientific purposes,like studying seasonality of diseases.

We wanted to know though if the absolute number of people looking up conservation topics is increasing over time. And so we wrote a simple algorithm, using estimates (or rather, guesses out there on the Internet – Google no longer publishes its total search statistics) of total number of Google searches performed each year. With a few equations, we were able to then look at the un-adjusted trends.

We were relieved by what we found. The number of people looking up conservation topics has been on the rise. What is really encouraging though is that the countries seeing the highest increase in Googling conservation are in east and south Africa, as well as parts of Asia. Also, we found that whenever there is a rise in people Googling Climate Change, there is a simultaneous increase in people Googling conservation, which is reassuring. The survival of biodiversity is very closely linked to climate change, and our results suggest that people are making that connection.

We don’t know the motivations that made people Google ‘conservation’, and so we can’t be sure that there is truly an increasing number of supporters of conservation. To make sure that we transform the online interest into true support, we, conservation scientists and people doing conservation, should harness this new wave of interest in conservation. We should communicate better and out-compete misinformation with correct, clear, evidence-based and engaging stories.

Burivalova, Z., Butler, R., Wilcove, D.S. 2018. Analyzing Google search data to debunk myths about the public’s interest in conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Vol 16 Issue 9.