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Tell your friends: taking rumour and gossip seriously, but not literally, in biodiversity conservation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2022


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Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Fauna & Flora International

Gossip and rumour must be near-universal features of conservation: every project I have worked on has featured them. My arrival at my PhD field site, a village bordering a small nature reserve in the Dominican Republic, prompted rumours that I was a prospector and geologist working for a secret gold mine within the reserve. Whilst studying privately protected areas in southern Chile, I regularly had respondents recall rumours, widespread during the early 1990s, that the conservation philanthropist Douglas Tompkins was using his privately protected areas as a front for some other agenda, including a CIA-sponsored coup, a sinister Zionist plot, and a plan to steal Chile's water (Holmes, Reference Holmes2014). During research on a rewilding project in west Wales, we encountered rumours that a lynx, escaped from a nearby zoo, had killed 5–10 sheep before being shot dead.

Everyone, it seems, enjoys a good gossip. Yet it is absent from most accounts of conservation projects. This under-reporting is perhaps unsurprising, given how conservation is understood and studied by most people in the field, with the exception of anthropologists and like-minded travellers who derive data, theory, and possibly enjoyment, from a good gossip (Gluckman, Reference Gluckman1963; Walley, Reference Walley2004; Rapport, Reference Rapport, Barnard and Spencer2009). The informal, transient, dynamic nature of rumours and gossip is difficult to capture with structured methods. Like folklore and traditional beliefs, rumours are easily dismissed as untrue, unsubstantiated or unscientific. On occasion, they are used as evidence of the apparent ignorance or backwardness of gossipers, in contrast to the superior and scientific knowledge of conservationists (Skogen et al., Reference Skogen, Mauz and Krange2008), or to discredit local opposition by portraying it as based on illogical and untrue stories (Holmes, Reference Holmes2014). But rumours and gossip, even when not true, do contain some indirect or distorted truths. They should not necessarily be taken literally, but they should be taken seriously.

In the examples above, the rumours are not factually true. Yet looking at the subsequent fate of each conservation initiative, it is as if they were true. Those villagers in the Dominican Republic still see the reserve as secretive, and their opposition has partly forced conservationists to change their plans (Holmes, Reference Holmes2013). In Chile, the political climate around Tompkins was so controversial that other owners of privately protected areas kept their distance from him, and struggled to build political support for private conservation (Holmes, Reference Holmes2014). It was only after 2 decades and Tompkins’ death that his vision was finally complete and his park was donated to the Chilean state. In Wales, the rewilding project has suffered significant setbacks, leading NGOs have withdrawn, and the reintroduction of large predators has been rejected (BBC News, 2018). In each case, rumours either illustrated the broader political dynamic that thwarted the projects, or had a direct impact themselves.

Anthropologists have analysed rumour as one form of the stories that people tell to make sense of their worlds. As such, rumour and gossip are best understood from the perspective of the perpetrator, rather than the observer (Gluckman, Reference Gluckman1963). Gossip is understood as an unverified or unverifiable story, often negative, about a person or small group that is recounted outside their presence, whereas rumour is similar, but concerning an event or issue. Gossip ‘is not idle: it has social functions and it has rules which are rigidly controlled’ (Gluckman, Reference Gluckman1963, p. 314). It creates in-groups, who know how to gossip, and who are bound together by the social act of sharing stories, and out-groups who do not and are thus excluded. Although early anthropology work on gossip and rumour explored these at village or community scale, we might also see them within the global epistemic community of conservation professionals, or in social media.

Rumours may not be factual but they reflect how the spreaders understand the world around them, and how conservation fits into this. So although I was not a gold prospector, and with no mining infrastructure visible nearby, the rumour spread because the villagers saw the reserve as backed by powerful actors, barring them from their former lands. For them, a gold mine is as good an explanation as any for why they could not access the forest. The story was not taken entirely seriously, but it circulated because it was compatible with, and reinforced, prevailing opinions (Holmes, Reference Holmes2013). The gossip about Tompkins spread because he had purchased land secretly through intermediaries in a politically contested territory, at a time when Chile was emerging into democracy from military rule (Holmes, Reference Holmes2014). It reflected deep distrust of him and his approach, and the political climate of the time.

Although the rules of rumour and gossip are specific to each culture, place and time, one curious feature of the literature on rumours in conservation is the prevalence of alternative theories of reintroductions, particularly of predators. Specifically, that government or radical environmentalists have secretly released captive-bred animals to establish or increase populations. Examples include wolves in Spain (Alvares et al., Reference Álvares, Domingues, Sierra and Primavera2011), Norway, France (Skogen et al., Reference Skogen, Mauz and Krange2008) and Greece (Theodorakea & von Essen, Reference Theodorakea and von Essen2016), leopards in India (Mathur, Reference Mathur2015), foxes and pumas in Chile (Benavides & Caviedes, Reference Benavides and Caviedes2021), and rabbits in Spain (Delibes-Mateos, Reference Delibes-Mateos2017). These animals have supposedly incorrect morphology, spread unnaturally quickly, are too tame or kill more frequently than native animals. The rumours may spread because they have been inspired by previous public and covert releases of key species, but also because they are salient with widely held views that these species do not belong, or are too numerous and harmful.

The early anthropology work on gossip also showed how it allowed people to informally share views that could not be aired publicly (Gluckman, Reference Gluckman1963). Complex social negotiations could be undertaken indirectly through the medium of gossip, all whilst maintaining an outward public facade of non-interaction. In my fieldwork in the Dominican Republic, villagers who needed to avoid direct conflict to maintain social capital would resolve disputes via gossip, sending story and counter-story, peace offer and counter-offer, via village street corners and other venues.

This idea of gossip as hidden transcript shows its political potential, as it allows relatively weak groups to spread scandal about more powerful groups. The subaltern studies approach emphasized the group and personal politics of rumour and gossip, one weapon in the armoury of seemingly weak and marginalized people (Scott, Reference Scott1985). Spreading rumours about a person or organization can discredit them, hinder their social interactions and undermine their purpose. For instance, rumours that wolves were being secretly released in Iberia antagonized local residents, restricting conservation officials’ work and advocacy for wolves (Álvares et al., Reference Álvares, Domingues, Sierra and Primavera2011). It also positioned wolves as the property and responsibility of the state. Claims in the Dominican Republic about secret goldmines were part of wider struggles over the moral obligations of conservationists towards local people and who should own and benefit from the forest's resources (Holmes, Reference Holmes2013). In Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania, where communication between conservationists and local people was poor, local people relied on rumour and gossip to understand changes in the Park, and to contest alleged abuses and malpractice (Walley, Reference Walley2004). Rumour can also aid conservation: rumours that an international NGO working in Madagascar had a private jail increased their ability to influence local people (Sommerville et al., Reference Sommerville, Milner-Gulland, Rahajaharison and Jones2010), though the authors did not record whether the NGO encouraged the spread of such rumours. Rumours are free and easy to create, spread rapidly, and their origins are difficult to identify, thus allowing their creators to avoid blame (Scott, Reference Scott1985). Conservationists often have substantial symbolic and political capital from scientific publications, and access to politicians and the media, but local opponents may not, so they turn to gossip to state their case. (Skogen et al., Reference Skogen, Mauz and Krange2008). Rumour-as-power-struggle is not just confined to local scales. For example, discussions of trophy hunting in social media, particularly from anonymous accounts, allow participants to spread stories that, whether true or not, can undermine the reputation and arguments of opponents.

Conservationists should take rumours and gossip seriously, because they both reflect and form part of the politics of conservation. They should attune themselves to rumour and gossip, listen for them, and learn to interpret them within the local context. Of course, rumours also spread and evolve because of the sheer joy and guilty pleasure of sharing a story. Gossiping is not just political, it is also fun, and understanding the serious and trivial performances in rumour requires understanding the local rules and context of gossip. Rumours should be taken seriously, but not too seriously. Tell your friends.


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