Art Can Save a Panda at TEDx Providence

Dear friends,

It's my pleasure to share with you a posting written by Dr. Lucy Spelman for Art of Conservation. Lucy is a friend and colleague of mine as well a board member to the organization. Please enjoy.

Thank you, Julie

In May 2015, I had the honor of giving my first TED talk. Please click here to watch and share.

I never would have given this speech had it not been for Julie and Art of Conservation.

In 2006, I was working as the field manager for the One-health Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in central Africa when I met Julie at a party. She was another "ex-pat" of which there were relatively few, so we started talking. I discovered she was a talented artist who wanted to get involved teaching Rwandans about the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Then she said something that got my attention: she wanted to "do something" for the gorillas, and not just about them. She wanted her work to be informed by what the scientists working in the field were up against. We started collaborating, trading ideas. Within months, Julie had launched AoC focused on engaging children in one-health conservation.

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Ndakazi, an orphaned mountain gorilla, in the care of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Photo taken in 2006 by Dr. Spelman for MGVP.

In collaborating with Julie a whole new world (outside of science) opened up to me. I could see from the artwork produced by the children that there were key pieces missing in our conservation program for the mountain gorillas, and in my own thinking about how to make a difference.

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 Art of Conservation students in Rwanda painting mountain gorillas.

For example, most people who entered the gorilla forest illegally went there for water, not for bushmeat, and certainly not to disrupt the gorillas.  On the other hand, though we understood relatively few local people were involved in setting snares for gorillas (as opposed to setting snares to catch antelope), every child could draw an image of a gorilla being caught in a snare. This made us realize the oral history about snaring gorillas was still going strong. Lastly, the children viewed the forest as scary place; they had no desire to go there. They wanted to have safe and clean homes like the orphan baby gorillas our project cared for. 

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Julie's students study intact ecosystems and then create illustrations. 

As I say at the end of my TED talk, what I have learned from collaborating with artists and teaching at an art school is that there is a whole new world of possibility for conservation - if we change our approach. Now is the time to reconnect the arts and sciences. We need to bring artists and scientists together not only to understand what is happening to the animal kingdom, but also to design and implement solutions.

The reason are two-fold. First, many people think of conservation as the work of a select group of scientists when it is, in fact, the work of everyone.

Second, we live in a society in which the arts and sciences are largely separated. This has not always been the case. Some of our greatest thinkers were artist/scientists, like Leonardo D'Vinci and Charles Darwin.

Art and science are two ways of seeing, of understanding the natural world and our place in it. And we need both for conservation to work.

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Photo of a panda by Dr. Spelman.

Science helps us understand how ecosystems function and offers a road map - the scientific method - for keeping them healthy. Art helps us understand how the presence - or absence - of healthy animals and their habitats affects our daily lives. If we have no life experience with a particular species or place, we are less likely to take action to protect it.

We often think of conservation as a science when it is so much more. It is a problem-solving process that requires collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. The good news is artists, designers, and scientists do work together, especially in conservation education and outreach.

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The Gorilla Doctors visit Art of Conservation classes and share with students how and why they treat the wild mountain gorillas. A child illustrates a veterinarian using a dart gun to administer antibiotics to a sick gorilla.

For examples of art+science collaboration and suggestions for how to get involved, please visit my new art+science=saving species website, Creature Conserve.

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