writing about wildlife

Writing About Wildlife

I spent almost two years writing about wildlife and safaris, which involved extensive research into a variety of animals. Along the way I learnt a lot about many different species, and how to write about them. After seeing the wrong information and the same stupid mistakes continually flouted across the World Wide Web, I thought it was time to share a few of the things I learnt.

Some of these rules may seem finicky, but as writing about wildlife entails spreading awareness about their plight, it is only fair that we get the information right. And for all those persnickety writers who share my adamancy about proper spelling, grammar and syntax, I hope you can appreciate and apply these rules as well.

1. Redundancy

“Illegal poaching” is a redundant term. Poaching by its very nature is illegal, so writing it like this is as pointless as writing “he was driving a vehicular car”. I imagine it is sometimes used, because the writer wishes to emphasise the illegality of the action. On the other hand, including it implies there is a legal form of poaching – which there is not. As much as writing should be clear and insightful, one should not assume that the reader is stupid (even if sometimes they are).

2. Common Nouns

Species’ names are common nouns, thus they must not be capitalised e.g. The cheetah is the fastest living land mammal in the world NOT The Cheetah is the fastest living land mammal in the world. For further clarification, look at it this way: You would not write I am eating at a Table. Common nouns are not capitalised in the English language. The only exception with regards to animal names is when the name of a species includes a proper noun e.g. The Asiatic cheetah is a critically endangered animal. Should you use the scientific name for a species, the name is written in italics and the first word is capitalised e.g. Acinonyx jubatus.

3. At Risk

When writing about animals at risk they should be termed threatened, and not endangered. The term endangered can be used if the species has actually been classified as such. For more information on the different threat classifications, check out the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Admittedly, this is a rather technical rule, and it really isn’t the end of the world if the words are used interchangeably. But the study of animals is a science, and thus they deserve proper treatment in written work.

4. Research

I cannot stress this word enough. You are a writer. You dispense knowledge and ideas. The Internet is already full of garbage; you do not need to add to the problem by adding work that is full of mistakes and incorrect information. These days you have no excuse. You have an entire global network at your fingertips and information is quickly and easily accessible. However, as mentioned, the Internet is full of garbage. If you are looking up a fact or checking on something you are uncertain about, find more than one source and try to stick to reputable websites.

5. Big 5

I am ambiguous about the term, Big 5. This concept adds an element of excitement to a game drive and is an effective tool for marketing safari packages. This is important in aiding tourism in parts of Africa, which in turn boosts national GDPs and raises awareness for conservation. The downside is that it overshadows other species which are in as much danger, if not more, than certain members of the Big 5. If you do choose to use the term, make sure you know which animals comprise this group.

6. Go Back to School

Re-learn baby names and collective nouns. When talking about a collection of animals, you can simply use the generic term “group”. But if you are going to use the proper collective term, make sure you use the right one – a pack of painted dogs, a coalition of cheetahs, a crash of rhinos, and so forth. The same applies to diminutives: painted dog pup, cheetah cub, rhino calf, etc.

7. Myths

Speaking about the painted dog, make sure you keep up to date with the latest conservation news and wildlife discoveries. This can entail anything from knowing that the African wild dog is more popularly referred to as the painted dog or Cape hunting dog to dispel its negative reputation to knowing that ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand.

8. Noah’s Ark

When writing about animals you don’t want to write something silly like “a bat is a reptile” or “a rhino is a carnivore”. Getting this right circles back to research. There is nothing worse than getting a fact wrong, when it can be easily double-checked. You may not be an expert, but I reiterate: the Internet is right there. If you are unsure, do a quick search. I am not always a fan of Wikipedia, but their scientific classification layout is clear and concise. It helps you quickly determine whether an animal is a mammal, reptile or amphibian; while National Geographic’s website has a useful sidebar with basic species facts. If you are uncertain and don’t have the time to check, rather don’t mention it.

9. Fauna and Flora

Fauna are animals, flora are plants. That is all the explanation needed. To anyone who knows the difference, you will look like an idiot if you confuse the two.

10. A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

When including images with your articles, make sure they correlate with your writing and that your captions are error-free. You can write a fantastic piece on saving the cheetah in South Africa, but if you include a picture of a leopard, no one will take it seriously. For people who don’t know the difference between the two big cats, they still won’t know after seeing the incorrect image attached to your writing.

11. Keep Your Emotions in Check

Whether writing from a marketing angle or a scientific angle, cramming excessive adjectives into your work is not professional. Firstly, no matter what you are writing about, it will look like you are doing nothing more than desperately trying to reach your word allocation. Secondly, it will not ring true. Gushing about something will make your text come across as false; and it will look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Keep your writing balanced between highlighting the excitement and providing the facts. As much as you may want to entice people to book a safari, you don’t want to leave them wondering what to do next. The same applies to writing an article where the purpose is education or insight. If you launch into an angry tirade you are just stirring the masses without providing a helpful solution or, even worse, without providing all the information. This does not mean that you have to write like a robot, you are still a human being and no writing is ever truly objective, but an obvious bias can have the wrong effect.

The Right Writing

If you are still wondering why it is important to write in this manner, you need to keep in mind that your writing could be read by someone who knows little to nothing about wildlife, so you have a duty to give them the correct information and to do so as objectively as possible in order to allow them to make their own decision about a certain subject. The flip side of the situation is that the people reading your work could be conservationists, veterinarians, game rangers or anybody else who works with animals. If they see you using incorrect terminology, providing inaccuracies or writing from a prejudiced point of view, they will lose interest or respect in your writing, stop reading and not share your work. As for the more technical English rules, I am sure many of you are familiar with the panda who eats, shoots and leaves.

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