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Protecting Pangolins and Preventing Pandemics: How XR Inspires Empathy and Shapes Action

As a medium, it is well understood by now that virtual reality–one of the immersive filmmaking varieties under the “XR” umbrella of virtual, augmented and mixed reality–can help audiences feel more compassionate and empathetic towards its subject matter than other types of engagement. As a program director for EarthxFilm’s immersive film branch EarthXR, my chief concern is engaging audiences with environmental conservation topics and high-impact solutions to protect our world and its inhabitants.

When COVID-19 first came to media attention, our focus remained short-term: how to keep humans safe, how to preserve the economy, and how to eradicate the virus as quickly as possible were all at the forefront of public concern. Environmentally speaking, however, we cannot ignore the root causes of pandemics like these and how we can take steps now to prevent those outcomes in the long-term future. 

Immersive experiences are a traceable way to motivate audiences to care about those root causes and care about protecting our climate, which will help prevent similar outbreaks.

Early during the pandemic, pangolins were suspected of being a host animal for COVID-19, as they are consistently poached from African countries and traded in countries such as China, where a wet market in Wuhan was believed to be the source of the virus. Keeping these animals in their natural habitats, away from human contact, would do the physical work of preventing potential virus spread amongst humans. Organizations like the woman-led Akashinga (meaning “The Brave Ones”) rangers fight poaching at its source and perform rescues of species including pangolins–which happen to be the most poached animal in the world–from Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife area and beyond. In the long-term, doing our part to curtail climate change and lower the Earth’s core temperature, plus doubling down on efforts to preserve the pangolin environment, will keep them in place and from seeking cooler, wetter climates.

Where does VR fit into all this? At this moment, virtual reality experiences spotlighting these issues have reached more audiences and inspired more support than their 2D counterparts may have. Habitat XR and its founder Ulrico Grech-Cumbo created the VR film A Predicament of Pangolins, working closely with pangolin wildlife expert Wendy Panaino and the Tswalu Foundation to craft the story of climate change afflicting the species as told from the perspective of two adorable “main” pangolins. VR, dropping audiences in front of the cute main characters, serves to create lasting memories as well as inform them of critical issues, building a memory bridge toward their most effective solutions. When audiences see a 360-degree picture of a story, they’re more inclined to remember it well and feel emotionally connected to its source and outcome.

XR can do more than serve as just a storytelling platform: it can connect grand ideas and concepts, like the global pandemic and pangolin conservation, and develop the throughline showing how closely issues can be linked. By creating a distraction-free presentation of current events and documenting the world’s problems, immersive film can inspire new audiences to get involved and do their part to aid the cause, or brainstorm solutions of their own.

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