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Webcam Conservation (Probably) isn’t the Answer

Can webcams be used to raise awareness, fundraise for philanthropic causes and potentially prevent the further endangerment of other species?

Everybody likes watching animals, a point that’s evident in our obsession with cats and dogs and making them pose for Instagram pictures or perform comical YouTube clips. Perhaps inevitably, then, a type of conservation effort that involves exactly that —following the daily activities of animals on a webcam —recently arose to get more people to appreciate the creatures that are endangered and, quite possibly, soon to be lost forever. 

Among Africa’s struggling wildlife are the black rhino, the Eastern and Western Lowland gorillas, the Bonobo, the African Penguin, the African wild dog, and the Giant Ground Pangolin. That’s to say nothing about the animals that have been associated with endangered life for decades, like the African elephant and the hippopotamus. Can casual viewership actually do anything for these species, though?

Webcams have been used for many wonderful things recently, from capturing movements to control video games (as in the Just Dance series or the Xbox Kinect) and to stop drivers from reversing into lampposts when parking.

Within the entertainment industry, webcams have been used to create a more authentic live casino experience by recreating a real table on a webcam and having a croupier interact with players in real-time. Whether it’s a game of roulette, poker, or even a gameshow like Adventures Beyond Wonderland, webcams have been used within the online casino industry to replicate the social aspects of a brick-and-mortar casino establishment with great success.

Evidently, webcam usage has been utilized for pragmatic purposes in preventing danger for drivers as well as for entertainment. However, the question that needs to be asked is whether webcams can be used to raise awareness, fundraise for philanthropic causes and potentially prevent the further endangerment of other species.

A Personal Relationship

In South Africa, wildlife webcams are located in and around Madikwe Game Reserve, Djuma Waterhole in Mpumalanga, the Balule Nature Reserve, and Pilanesberg National Park, among plenty of other sites. These are popular worldwide. The objective of each one of these webcams is to help create a personal relationship between the viewer and the animals in question. Ideally, this kind of connection would foster empathy and stir people into action to save these increasingly rare species from extinction.

Does it? Well, it might. However, the entire concept of raising awareness as some form of armchair activism is an ineffective one. To paraphrase Psychology Today, changes in knowledge do not automatically produce changes in behavior, which means that simply knowing that large numbers of Africa’s wildlife could be wiped out within decades (and even years and months) does nothing to spare them this fate.

Of course, expectations do play a big part in measuring success so it’s worth wondering whether one person’s action makes up for a lack of interest from many others. These webcams were created primarily as entertainment, though, so it’d be unfair to lay responsibility at anybody’s feet. If nothing else, nature webcams do at least demonstrate how technology can be used to encourage the public to engage with wildlife and efforts to preserve these creatures into the future.

Additionally, wildlife tours are a major draw for tourists on the African continent, with large amounts of foreign money going back into conservation efforts. If the inspiration for visiting comes from viewing one of these webcams, they’ve served part of their purpose.

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