To stem illegal rhino trafficking, conservationists shame Asian buyers


Lonnie Shekhtman, Christian Science Monitor

Date Published

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Before the dust settled on this week’s news that trafficking hub Hong Kong committed to ban its elephant ivory trade, and just months after the US and China promised to do the same, conservationists are moving on to another urgent wildlife target: the rhinoceros.

Rhinos are being poached in Africa in record numbers, their horns prized for their supposed aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities.

Kenya-based African Wildlife Foundation and San Francisco-based WildAid recently launched public awareness campaigns in China and Vietnam, the biggest markets for rhino horn, to try to tap into people’s emotions and motivations in an effort to clear up misconceptions about the rhino horn’s therapeutic value.

“Advertisers will tell you that you win the heart and the mind follows,” Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Conservationists are seeing a path to progress emerging. They’re using celebrity endorsements, reason, and harrowing images to convince people to stop buying rhino horns, drawing on tactics that have already helped reduce demand for ivory from elephant tusks in China, one of the world’s largest consumers of wildlife products. 

The value of illegal ivory has fallen by half there, as awareness of the impact of the trade on Africa’s elephants has grown among consumers.

Protecting vulnerable animals in the wild, such as elephants, rhinos, sharks and tigers, and lobbying world leaders to change international policies related to the wildlife trade are instrumental. But some conservation organizations, such as WildAid, are turning to psychology to make it socially unacceptable to purchase wildlife products.

“The point is to show that society has moved forward,” says Knights.  “If you’re not there, you’re behind the curve,” he says.

Convincing enough buyers of this would render the illegal wildlife trade uneconomical. By reducing demand for rhino horns, prices drop and it becomes a less viable business for poachers.

“It’s all about economic reasons,” says Mr. Knights, an economist by training.

Poaching crises invariably coincide with rapid economic growth in countries, like China, where there is huge demand for wildlife products. As long as there is demand, says Knights, regardless of whether the trade of wildlife products is legal, prices will stay high enough to encourage an illicit supply.

Celebrity-studded education

To choke demand, WildAid and the African Wildlife Foundation, with partners in China and Vietnam, are deploying luminaries such as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and other celebrities including Vietnamese-American actress Maggie Q, famous Chinese actress Li Bingbing, and Chinese actor and singer Jing Boran, to persuade the public that horn is not worth brutally killing rhinos for.

In a campaign called “Nail Biters” celebrities featured on billboards, magazine ads, documentaries and public service announcements – much of the media donated – explain that rhino horn is primarily made of keratin, a protein also found in human nails and hair. But contrary to local myth, it has no medicinal or recreational drug value. 

One English-language commercial features a casual Mr. Branson biting his nails as he points out the sad irony of rhino horn, his message buoyed by a few images of mutilated rhinos briefly flashed across the screen.

“I think what Richard Branson is saying is ‘Hey guys, don’t be scammed,’” says Craig Sholley, vice president at the African Wildlife Foundation, in a phone interview.  

“From an economic standpoint, you’re just being completely scammed at the expense of losing one of the world’s most iconic mammals,” he says.

It’s a technique straight out of the anti-smoking campaign’s playbook. The highly effective “Truth” campaign, as National Geographic points out, more than a decade old, has been instrumental in turning young people away from smoking. It abandoned futile warnings of smoking’s health threats in favor of showing rebellious, young smokers that they were beingmanipulated by tobacco companies.

It has worked before

The good news is that targeting demand already has helped to reduce interest in rhino horn in the United States and Europe in the 1980s, and in Taiwan in the 1990s, when it was the biggest market for horn.

And more recently, it has helped reduce interest in ivory in China, where an explosion of wealth has encouraged an insatiable appetite for the prized carving material.

Conservationists reported the illegal killing of 100,000 elephants in Africa between 2010 and 2012, that’s 33,630 each year, in a 2014 study by WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and others. In 2013 and 2014 the numbers were slightly down, though far from sustainable.

Before conservationists started aggressively campaigning in China in 2012 to help reduce ivory demand, they surveyed the Chinese public, about two thirds of which didn’t know ivory came from poached elephants. When they asked again two years later, there was a 50 percent increase in awarenessthat ivory comes from poaching not from natural causes.

“Two years ago, I would wake up in middle of the night with nightmares (over losing elephants),” says Mr. Sholley. “Today I’ve got a much better feeling, because I feel like we’re beginning to turn a corner,” he says.

For rhinos, the situation is dire, Sholley says. There has been an alarming surge in killings in recent years, from a few in 2007 to 1,160 reported cases of rhino poaching last year in South Africa, home to most of the remaining rhinos on the planet, about 25,000 of them. This was a slight improvement from the 1,215 poached in 2014.

Sholley says he is hopeful about their future despite the bleak statistics.

Surveys that measured evolving perceptions about ivory in China, also show that the percentage of people who believe that rhino horn has medicinal benefits has dropped by nearly a quarter, from 58 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2014. And about half of the Chinese people polled know that rhinos are killed for their horns, a 52 percent increase in awareness since 2012.

“I am confident that in Asia, once they’re aware of the circumstances … we’re going to turn things around and generations forward in Africa and the world are still going to have a nice population of elephants and rhinos,” Sholley says.