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When words let us down

Habitat loss vs. habitat destruction

A Government official once said to a friend of mine, who is a professional conservation communicator, “It’s so sad that we lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle* [a type of bat]. If only we had acted earlier.” My friend couldn’t help replying with a touch of sarcasm, “You lost it! Where was it last time you saw it? Maybe I can come and help you look.”  Then with a more sombre tone he then said, “Seriously mate, don’t you mean you and the Government allowed it to become extinct?” This simple reframe took the conversation on a very different trajectory to one of personal and governmental accountability, versus simple regret about an awful situation.

In a similar vein, I’ve recently began asking publishers to avoid using the term ‘habitat loss’ in any text associated with my images. ‘Habitat destruction’ is fine, but not ‘habitat loss.’


It has to do with a concept called ‘framing.’ Not the type we generally associate with printing photographs, but communication framing. Put simply, language matters, and often subtle word choices (or frames) can make a big difference to how a message is perceived by the reader, and the mental map they apply to understand information and make decisions.

Let’s look more closely at ‘loss’ versus ‘destruction’ frame through the simple example of my friend’s car keys.

I ‘lost’ a friend’s car keys once. I didn’t mean to – it was an unforeseen accident. Sure, it was inconvenient and annoying, but I don’t think anyone would suggest there was some type of moral culpability; I’m not a ‘bad’ person because I lost them. It was a simple accident, and who knows, I might actually find them again, and so the loss could be reversed (although not the irritation my friend felt at the time).

What if I’d deliberately destroyed the keys, or allowed someone else to? It would have resulted in the same outcome – no car keys – but I’d suggest my friend would have viewed the situation very differently.

Similarly, the danger with using the frame ‘habitat loss’ is that it infers it’s just an accident; that no one could foresee it, and so no one is really to blame or morally accountable. But we know that’s not the case.

Using the term ‘habitat destruction’ however reframes the situation more as foreseeable or more deliberate, and so starts to hold the people who caused it, or those who allowed it to happen, morally accountable. It also reframes the situation more towards being preventable.

Think about these two phrases for example:

‘Australia is losing its native forests’

‘Australia is destroying its native forests’

Same outcome (i.e. no forests) but very different frames and ways to think about the issue and what is going on.

What is framing

So what actually is ‘framing?’

As we all know, the world is cluttered with complex issues. To help make sense of it all, people build a series of mental filters called ‘frames.’ These ‘frames’ effectively help people simplify complex issues, by placing a greater weight on some considerations and arguments, rather than others. They can also lead people to respond very differently to identical data. Importantly, these frames are not consciously manufactured, rather unconsciously adopted in the course of any communication processes.

Applied deliberately and carefully, ‘framing’ can be used as a powerful influencing tool to focus perspective, to influence opinions and attitudes, to motivate or persuade people, and to shape the lenses through which communication passes. In short, framing can help or hurt our efforts to address conservation problems.

The broad concept of framing can be traced back over 30 years to work in psychology, sociology, cognitive linguistics and communication. The psychological origins lie in the experimental research by Kahneman and Tversky, for which Kahneman won the 2002 Noble Prize in economics. Together they developed ‘prospect theory’ and using heuristics and biases established a cognitive basis for common human errors.

The most popular use of framing however is generally in political circles, and was made famous by renowned University of California linguistics professor Dr. George Lakoff, for his study of framing national issues with language. A classic example he highlights in his work is how the U.S. Republican party reframed ‘tax cuts’ as ‘tax relief’. The ‘relief’ frame reinforces the Republican worldview that taxes are an affliction that everyone would want relief from, and that the Republicans were the party to eliminate these. A clear case of how frames emphasise what a person will focus on when developing their opinion.

There are several different types of frames. One type can be called a ‘Concept’ or ‘Issue’ frame. These frames can define a problem or expectation, attribute blame for the problem, make a moral appeal to fix the problem, and propose a solution. Another type of framing that is similarly powerful and worth considering is ‘equivalence’ framing. In these cases the same information is presented but in a different way, to elicit a different understanding, belief or response.

Interestingly, even reframing time has been shown to influence behaviour.

A study about superannuation showed that people were more likely to add to their savings if time to retirement was framed in days versus years – the idea being the concept of a day connects you more with your future self than that of a year. e.g. “You only have 20 years until you retire” is less powerful than “You only have 5,300 days until you retire.”

Coincidentally, I was speaking to Tim Flannery (author of ‘The Weather Makers’) recently and I asked him, “How bad is it regarding climate change?” He replied, “Some aspects of climate change are already irreversible without the use of yet to be developed carbon negative technologies. We’ll never have another ice age. With current output, within 12 years we’ll be committed to 2° C warming.”

Thinking 12 years was alarming enough, when I reframed it to “…in under 4,000 days unless we do something…”it just seemed more powerful (and well, depressing if I was to be honest).

A case study

In 2003, when SmartPower, a non-profit based organisation in Hartford, Connecticut, wanted to determine how best to promote its ‘environmentally friendly energy’, it completed its own naming-and-framing research via nationwide polls and focus groups. Interestingly the research showed there were not only too many names for ‘environmentally friendly’ energy in the marketplace (clean, green, renewable, alternative), but that the consumer perceptions of what was essentially the same product varied greatly, purely because of the way the product was framed.

‘Renewable’ was considered a technical term for industry experts with an unclear meaning. ‘Alternative’ implied that you had to make a lifestyle change that people weren’t comfortable with, while ‘Green’ connected the concept to the Green Party and associated the product with broader political implications.

‘Clean’ was found to have the best perception, and now more than a quarter of the state has joined SmartPower’s Clean Energy Communities program, pledging to receive 20% of their power from clean sources by the end of the decade (2010).

And when you think about it, that probably makes sense. Most people who care probably want clean energy first and foremost.

Final thoughts

Research shows that framing is an incredibly powerful influencing tool that impacts much of what any of us do as soon as we even start thinking about an issue, let alone communicating it outside our own mind. All information exists within a frame of some kind, and there is no way to present information that is devoid of a frame.

As people passionate about conservation, it’s important to always consider how information is framed and can influence the impact of our communication. Whether we choose to try and strategically ensure the best frames are applied to our images (and indeed all our communication), or to simply ignore the idea, how the issues are framed will nevertheless influence their impact. If we choose to recognise the power of framing and use it purposely, there’s a better chance our conservation stories and messages will have a far greater impact on our audiences.


I have attached a spread sheet that I update frequently on potential reframes. It is available here as a pdf. 

Drowning our platypus

WARNING, contains graphic and potentially disturbing images.

The thought of any animal trapped underwater, slowly drowning while it frantically searches for an escape is horrific. Knowing that we allow this to happen to one of our most iconic and unique species, the platypus, for the sake of a few yabbies, is simply disgraceful. And yet this is what happens every year with people using enclosed yabby traps (i.e. opera house nets, drum nets etc.) and other type of enclosed nets in our waterways. These nets trap indiscriminately and frequently drown platypuses (as well as other air breathing animals such as rakali and turtles) and the current regulations clearly don’t prevent this. This was graphically and horribly illustrated earlier this year by the death of five platypuses in just two opera house nets in west Gippsland in May (ABC on-line). Images below. Also, platypuses are now listed as “near threatened” under the IUCN, so anything that puts them at risk should be banned.


In Victoria, after a significant campaign in 2017/18, it is wonderful to report that enclosed yabby traps such as opera house nets will be banned from July 2019. In NSW and Qld however, they can still be used in some areas, and drowning deaths are being reported. Confusion and misunderstanding of the current regulations as well as a lack of awareness or appreciation of the risks posed by these nets appears to be a major problem, so lets clarify a few common misunderstandings:

1)There aren’t any platypus in this stream, I’ve been coming here for years and haven’t seen any”

As platypuses can be quite elusive and mainly active at night, not observing one in your local waterway certainly does not mean they are not present. Platypuses inhabit many large and small waterways throughout Victoria and long term residents are sometimes quite surprised when they are told they have some platypus neighbours. For someone unfamiliar with the waterway, it is virtually impossible to tell if platypuses are present.

2) “Platypus don’t live in farm dams”

Platypuses are regularly found in farm dams. In fact, some on-stream dams can provide excellent foraging habitat for them. They can also travel across land to reach off-stream dams or travel along drainage channels after rainfall. So regulations allowing use of these indiscriminate death traps in private dams do not prevent platypuses being drowned.

3) “I use these nets safely as I check them regularly”

Platypuses are mammals like us. They only have a few minutes of air when diving and if they are frantically searching for a way out of a trap, they will use this up even quicker. Checking nets regularly will not prevent their drowning.

4) “But they are sold in my local camping store so surely I can use them?”

Yes, and that’s part of the problem. While most responsible stores will inform customers of the regulations and risks, many don’t. These nets are also available in large fishing and outdoor stores or online, where no staff are available to share this information. The problem is compounded by the fact that many nets sold have little or no labeling. Information on the use of equipment in inland (freshwater) water is available on the Victorian Fisheries Authority web page link here

5) “I wasn’t aware there use in public waterways in Victoria was illegal”

Well if you have read this far, the great news is, now you do, and you can share this information so others know. Using them illegally can carry large fines and prison sentences (some details here).

6) “I’m unsure of the difference between an enclosed yabby trap such as an opera house net, and a hoop or drop net net”.

Victorian Fisheries Authority web page has good information which is available here, however a couple of images from their web site showing an enclosed trap known as an opera house net, and a hoop net, shows the difference pretty well.


So how do we prevent this?

We’re sure that most people would be absolutely devastated to be responsible for the death of a platypus. How terrible would it be to pull out a net with your kids and find a drowned platypus in it? Or two? So what to do?

1) We want owners/users to immediately stop using enclosed yabby traps and switch to the safer alternatives such as hoop or drop nets.

2) We’d like to see retailers acknowledge the problem, show some corporate responsibility, and simply stop selling enclosed yabby traps (such as opera house nets) immediately. Wouldn’t it be great if they considered a product recall or implemented an in-store discount/swap out scheme for safer nets?  

3) We’d like legislation and regulations in Victoria to be changed so the sale, ownership and use of enclosed yabby nets in any waterway is prohibited. There are platypus-friendly alternatives that are virtually just as effective, such as hoop or drop nets.


So what can you do?

 – Engage with those who make policy
Contact your local or state politicians, and very politely ask them to support a change in regulations which ban the sale, ownership and use of enclosed yabby traps, and explain why. 

 – Spread the word.
Many people are simply unaware of the regulations (i.e. not to be used in Victorian public waterways) or about the risks that these nets pose (i.e. they drown air breathing animals), so please pass this information on.
If you find an enclosed yabby trap being used illegally (or any traps being used illegally for that matter – current fisheries regulations are available here), immediately report this to the relevant authorities. In Victoria you can call 13FISH any time of the day, or DELWP on 136186 during business hours.

 – Talk to those who sell them.
If you go into a fishing/outdoor store, ask if they sell enclosed yabby traps such as opera house nets, and if the answer is yes, explain the issue to them and then ask them if there is a good reason they won’t stop? 
To find out who sells them, just google the words “opera house net buy” and you’ll get a good idea.

–  Report a sighting
If you are ever lucky enough to see a platypus in the wild, please register the sighting using the platypusSPOT app available here. The more we know about their distribution the better.


What are we (and others) doing?

 – In Victoria, a concerned group have been established (the Victorian Alliance for Platypus-Safe Yabby Traps), and we are working really hard with relevant government authorities and like minded organisations to try and get the use of enclosed yabby traps in all waters banned, as well as raise awareness around the issue.

At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are a few yabbies worth causing the traumatic drowning death of our most iconic wildlife?’

We think the answer has to be a resounding NO, and call on all people who use them to stop, all retailers who sell them to stop, and all the relevant authorities with the power to do something, to change the regulations.

With compassion and hope.

Doug Gimesy and Josh Griffiths (wildlife ecologist @ platypusSPOT)

PS. If you’d like to read more about platypuses, a piece recently  in Australian Geographic is available by clicking the link here.
Disclaimer: Please check with your relevant authorities for local legislation regarding net/trap use etc. The information in this blog is presented in good faith, but things change, and lets be candid, we’re  scientists and conservation photographers who care, not lawyers.