In a new study led by the Department of Biology, University of Oxford, in collaboration with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, researchers found that from 2013 to 2020 global biodiversity-related Google searches increased, driven mostly by an increase in searches for charismatic wildlife.
However, searches for conservation actions such as protected areas, habitat restoration, and ecotourism mostly decreased through the decade, with a particularly stark decline since 2019 – restricted mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic likely playing a part. This decline was more pronounced in regions with high inequality, such as Africa and Latin America.
The research also looked at the factors associated with interest in biodiversity. Higher economic inequality was linked to lower interest in biodiversity and conservation, while greater purchasing power was associated with increased interest. This may be due to people with higher income being more likely to have greater access to formal and informal education and information about the environment.
The first target of the Convention for Biological Diversity (Aichi target 1) was that by 2020 there would be an increase in public awareness towards the values of biodiversity and actions needed to conserve it. Global targets such as these inform policy changes around the globe, and Aichi target 1, especially, is considered a key prerequisite for other conservation targets. Monitoring success in achieving Aichi target 1 at a global scale has been difficult until recently. However, the increased digitisation of human life has allowed researchers to use Google search volume data as a proxy for interest.
Dr Diogo Veríssimo (Department of Biology, University of Oxford) said:
While nearly all the world’s governments agreed in 2011 that awareness of biodiversity was vital, we did not know whether the target that was set out for 2020 was achieved. This research suggests we made substantial progress globally, which is encouraging. We now need to push beyond interest and into driving changes in behaviour.
The researchers assessed related topics such as popular species or biomes such as tropical forests and grasslands, and investigated patterns across countries. Mammals accounted for 59% of the variation in interest in biodiversity, as measured by Google searches. When examining page views on Wikipedia, the top ten species were mammals; six of which were classified as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The results suggest partial success towards achieving Aichi target 1. However, the disconnect suggests that interest in biodiversity is not sufficient for driving interest in its conservation, and a stronger link between the two is needed. Given the skew, the researchers recommend leveraging current awareness of popular topics toward outreach and education efforts for neglected aspects of biodiversity.
“Charismatic mammals can be used as flagship species in campaigns to generate interest about environmental policies; this could include habitat restoration initiatives, which can benefit other species such as amphibians, for which 41% of species are threatened.” says Dr Gabriel Caetano (Ben Gurion University), one of the authors of the study.
“Results varied a lot between countries, even those close to each other, which shows that attention to local socioeconomic contexts is essential when designing outreach efforts”, added Professor Uri Roll (Ben Gurion University).
The researchers are now broadening this effort, having developed an online platform allowing real-time interest monitoring across topics, countries, and years. They have also set up the Nature Attitudes Tracker. This platform goes beyond just measuring interest – like when using search data – and can track how people across the globe feel about different species and biomes. These are key next steps to generating the insights needed to influence policy and behaviour at scale.
To read more about this research, published in Conservation Biology, visit: https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.14100