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From the first time Australian conservationist Tammie Matson stepped foot in Zimbabwe on a safari with her father as a 15-year-old, she has been asking herself what more could she do to help Africa’s wildlife.
It was a question that led her astray from a planned life of studying law in Australia, to spending more than a decade in African national parks, from Zimbabwe to Zambia to Namibia – first studying black-faced impala before falling into the field of human-elephant conflict.
In 2012, she moved to Singapore with her husband Andy Ridley, who runs Earth Hour, and their two sons, after a stint working in environmental advocacy in Sydney.
Naturally her thoughts went to what she might be able to do for African wildlife from her new home.
It turned out that urban Asia was not so far removed from the elephants she loved in Africa.
“At that stage we were really beginning to see that there was a desperate need for awareness of the connection between the elephant and rhino poaching in Africa and the consumption of rhino horn and ivory in Asia,” she said.
With a few exceptions, the international trade of ivory, has been illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since January 1990, but the trade has continued to flourish, particularly in China, the US and South-East Asia.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade, and it’s really not the poachers in Africa that are making much money out of this – although to them it could be worth a three-year salary – but when the ivory or the rhino horn gets to Asia, it’s making 10 times that much, for the guy at the end of the trade chain,” Dr Matson said.
This was how Dr Matson came to be talking about elephants to Asia’s Next Top Model TV show host Nadya Hutagalung at a “random MTV Christmas party” in Singapore.
“We started talking about elephants. I could tell from talking to her that she was an animal lover and I said you really should think about going to Africa and seeing elephants in the wild and she said ‘oh, I would love to do that’,” Dr Matson said.
“The next day I tweeted her and I didn’t expect to get a response, but she came back to me straight away and said ‘let’s go and have a coffee and talk about maybe going to Africa’ and it was literally about four months after that Christmas party that we were in Kenya making a film about this issue.”
Since then the two Australian-born women have taken their documentary and campaign to Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.
Next year, she said, they will focus on Thailand.
Using a celebrity face to change attitudes around ivory consumption is a strategy that Dr Matson said was beginning to work in China, where she said around 70 per cent of ivory is consumed.
Retired NBA star Yao Ming has been one of the faces of a campaign to strip ivory and rhino horn of the status symbol it has come to imbue.
Just last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Barack Obama agreed to nearly completely halt their domestic ivory trades.
Melbourne march for elephants and rhinos
This weekend, Dr Matson is in Melbourne showing her film Let Elephants be Elephants, and leading a march, one of many around the world to raise awareness about the ivory and rhino horn trade.
The march is organised by Kenyan conservation group DSWT which rescues orphaned elephants.
According to the group, an estimated 36,000 elephants are poached every year for their ivory while last year, 1,215 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa alone.
Rangers in Africa are risking their lives to protect wildlife from organised criminals who profit from their slaughter on the global market.
Dr Matson said this weekend was important to turn agreements like those reached between the US and China this week into concrete policy and while Australians are not major consumers of ivory, or big players in its transit, we do have some political clout with countries that are.
“We’re calling on the Australian Government to follow the lead of the Chinese president and the American president … what we would love to see is Australia to help their South-East Asian neighbours to get on top of this problem, because it’s really a multi-faceted problem and they need all the help they can get to stop the ivory trade.”