In the second episode of Sciencing Out, host Reyhaneh Maktoufi introduces us to two women: 18th-century Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and modern-day wildlife conservationist Paula Kahumbu. By dedicating time to build public trust, both Lady Mary and Paula made major positive changes in their communities.
In 1716, when smallpox was still ravaging the world, Lady Mary, her husband, England's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and their son moved to Constantinople, where Lady Mary noticed that smallpox was less widespread than in England. She discovered that Constantinoplans held “smallpox parties” where, in a process called “inoculation,” a person would place into the open wound of a healthy person a dried smallpox scab from a patient with a mild case. This fascinated Lady Mary, whose brother had died of smallpox. She trusted the process so much that she had her own child inoculated, too.
Lady Mary returned to England and tried to advocate for inoculation, but most people didn’t trust it (or her). So she went to her friend Caroline, the Princess of Wales, implored her to inoculate her own baby against smallpox, and inform the public of the result. Caroline agreed. Seeing that royalty were inoculating their babies helped build public trust around the practice, ultimately resulting in a reduction of 28% between the mortality rate of those who naturally contracted smallpox to those inoculated against the disease—and setting the stage for modern-day vaccination.
But can scientists and advocates become trusted sources without tapping into royalty? Take Paula, who runs the conservation organization Wildlife Direct. “We produce a television series called Wildlife Warriors to help educate, inspire and bring the wonder of nature into the homes of people across Kenya and Africa,” Paula told NOVA.
In 2013, Wildlife Direct launched “Hands Off Our Elephants,” a conservation campaign aimed at ending Kenya’s poaching crisis. Paula has also approached the Masai, a Kenyan tribe, to be featured in an episode of her program Wildlife Warriors, but knew she needed their trust, first: “When I went to see them, I was trying to explain I've come to make this film and they just looked at me and said, ‘We already know that you've come here with good intentions.’” Since then, elephant and rhino poaching in Kenya has declined by 80% and 90%, respectively.