What is your research area?
I’m based in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in the Department of Zoology. About half my time is spent working on the ecology of clouded leopards in Malaysia, where deforestation is having a big impact. We look at spatial and temporal patterns – where the clouded leopards are distributed, and what time of day they are active, and how well the protected forest corridors are doing at protecting the clouded leopards. We’re doing similar work with ocelots in the Amazon and clouded leopards and tigers in Bhutan.
The other half of my research is on innovative teaching. I create games about conservation issues, for example a casino-style game where players bet on their population of poker chips and try to ensure that it doesn’t become extinct. These games are available free to anyone who wants to use them (Eco-divo, RSPO). I also do research on the effects of games on learning and we will publish a paper on this soon.
Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?
I have always been very interested in engagement with the public. To learn while having fun is something that I’ve been doing for many years through the games I’ve developed. Students and participants have had a very positive experience when playing these games. So for me Curiosity Carnival was a great way to engage the public, especially kids. Also, I was interested in trying out an interactive form of theatre that incorporated game mechanisms.
What was the activity that you organised?
WildCRU does a lot of research on large carnivores, and one of the biggest things to happen recently was the death of Cecil the lion, who was being monitored by WildCRU researchers. He was killed by trophy hunters just outside the protected area of a national park in Zimbabwe. We thought this would be a good issue to tackle and so we decided to create a play based on the trophy hunting of lions, with WildCRU researchers taking on the role of a lion, a local person, a trophy hunter and a researcher.
I had never done anything quite like this before, but the play used mixtures of different game mechanisms. In particular the idea was based on ‘Choose your own adventure’ – those books where you make decisions at key points and the story changes depending on what you decide. For example, for the first part of the play the actors presented their arguments for and against trophy hunting. Then at a certain point the audience voted, and the way they voted determined the outcome of the play.
What did you learn from the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?
The most important thing we got out of it was understanding the audience’s opinion on this sensitive issue. In three of the plays they banned trophy hunting but in the fourth one we challenged them a bit more so they voted to support trophy hunting and the play took the other route. It was very interesting to see that the arguments that the actors presented didn’t necessarily sway the audience that much! The kids especially voted to ban trophy hunting, and they weren’t influenced by their parents.
If we did it again I would try to portray the benefits of trophy hunting for local people more explicitly, to see if it influenced the audience’s decision. Or for each performance we could give a different treatment and see if we got a different outcome from the audience.
It was great fun not only to act, but to create the script. We did start work on it about five weeks before Curiosity Carnival, and we were lucky to have help from Jennifer Spencer at WildCRU. She was the one who put the meat on the bones of my draft script and she deserves a lot of credit. There were a lot of people to coordinate for rehearsals and so on, so it was quite a lot of work, but all those involved definitely felt it was worth it.
Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?
I think one of the things that prevents researchers from doing this kind of thing is the time required by such events, especially when their main responsibility is research rather than outreach. Sometimes it can be hard to find motivations to do outreach. I myself am passionate about this, so my practical advice would be to work in a group so that many ideas will be generated, your group members can help you and you will spend less time on it. Plan early – maybe one month in advance – and do something that is related to you on a personal level, that you’re interested in, so you will be motivated.
We also learnt that’s it’s possible to do public engagement on really sensitive issues. We were a little hesitant at first, because the play might portray WildCRU as supporting trophy hunting. However, we made sure WildCRU’s lion researchers had a proper say in the script, and went through multiple versions to make sure the arguments were objective.
If you publish your work, that’s great, but if the public and politicians don’t understand your research, its impacts might be minimal. Ultimately most of our research money comes from the public and some research can have a real influence on policy changes.
Do you have plans for any future public engagement activities?
I’ve just won some PER funding to develop a similar idea based on our clouded leopard research, this time with additional videos for YouTube and additional interactive elements. In this project we plan to ask the audience for solutions to sensitive problems, not by just offering them different options, but actually challenging them to be creative and generate new ideas.
Co-writer and narrator: Jennifer Spencer
Tour guide actor and helper: Akchousanh Rasphone
Hunter: Zaneta Kaszta
Zimbabwe Local actor: Moreangels Mbizah
Tourist actor: Charlotte Searle
Co-writer and Leo the Lion actor: Cedric Tan
Contributors to script writing: Paul Johnson, Kim Jacobsen, Laura Perry, Xinyang Hong, Lara Sousa