The effect of British natural history television programmes: Animal representations and wildlife tourism

This source preferred by Susanna Curtin

Authors: Curtin, S.C.

Publisher: Channel View Publications

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the relationship between media representations of the animal kingdom and the increased demand for wildlife tourism products and destinations. The discussion will pay particular attention to the types and delivery of natural history programmes, the social representations of animals, the tendency towards anthropomorphism, animal performance and destination marketing.

Animals play a very important part of the human imaginings. Throughout our evolutionary history man has had an extremely complex relationship with the animal kingdom. According to Franklin, animals are uniquely positioned relative to humans in that they are “both like us, but not us” (1999:9). Unlike trees, plants and rocks, they have the capacity to represent the differentiations, characters and dispositions of any given society. Indeed human-like characteristics particularly prevalent in mammals often reflect the extent to which mankind can empathise with animal behaviour or attributes and this in turn affects how worthy species are of the tourist gaze or even of protection or conservation. For a tourist, animals can become a focus of attention as they bring ‘action’, ‘theatre’ and ‘performance’ to an otherwise still or passive landscape. There is no doubt that television programmes, popular media, art and literature all play their part in how we conceptualise animals and their habitats. Out of these genres, natural history television programmes are arguably the most powerful in determining animal narratives and values due to their ‘up-close’, ‘real-time’ and ‘visual’ portrayal of the trials and tribulations of animal life. Davies (2000) plots the development of the this genre from its post-war beginnings until the 1960s during which an expert vision of nature that stressed the importance of field observation and scientific interpretations of animal form so revolutionised by the ‘scientific voice’ of David Attenborough were the order of the day. However, many would argue that this narrative has long since gone to be replaced by one which is more anthropomorphic and emotional; particularly in the light of deforestation, climate change and declining species. Today, the camera is a lens through which ‘real-life’ animals stories are told. Programmes such as the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, March of the Penguins, My Family of Bears are gripping, emotional accounts of animal lives. The use of web-cam and film technologies that reveal the entire day to day life of species and allow audiences to follow the trials and tribulations of life as it unfurls have also been instrumental in capturing audiences. Indeed many wildlife tourist attractions also now incorporate webcam technologies to capture the imagination and interest of their visitors. The wildlife tourism literature frequently alludes to this inter-relationship between increased wildlife tourism demand and the proliferation of emotive natural history programmes; particularly those which depict charismatic, iconic, flagship or disappearing species (Newsome et al., 2005; Walpole and Thouless, 2005). Research recently undertaken in the United Kingdom confirms this relationship where in-depth interviews and survey data reveal how a popular, live, twice weekly programme on British wildlife has instilled or reawakened an interest in trip taking to see Britain’s wildlife. This correlation between interest in wildlife watching and media representations of nature is not surprising when wildlife programmes are watched by 52% of men and 51% of women in the UK (DCMS, 2009). Destination marketers have also been quick to exploit the demand to see iconic species. Tourist brochures are thus proliferated with photographs of endemic wildlife. These and popular natural history programmes culminate in animals being both symbolic of place and perhaps also symbolic of the anthropogenic impacts on our natural environment which subconsciously evokes a desire to ‘see them while you still can’.

Department of Culture, Media and Sport (2009) The National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport. Available from: G. Davies (2000) 'Science, observation and entertainment: competing visions of postwar British natural history television, 1946-1967' Ecumene, 7 (4): 432-459 Franklin, A. (1999) Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity. London: Sage Publications.

Newsome, D., Dowling, R., & Moore, S. (2005). Wildlife Tourism. Aspects of Tourism Series. Clevedon: Channel View Publications.

Walpole, M. J. & Thouless, C. R. (2005). In R. Woodroffe, S. Thirgood and A. Rabinowitz (Eds.) People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (pp122-139).

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