Using Chinese star power to fight ivory poaching in Africa
The biggest demand for ivory is in China, so conservationists are trying to give Chinese consumers a greater understanding of poaching – with the help of Chinese celebrities like Yao Ming.
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"Now is the time for this kind of thing. It's increasingly difficult to find the poachers on the ground. They used to go out with bows and arrows and machetes. Now they have automatic weapons and night-vision goggles."Skip to next paragraph
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Traditionally, the fight against poachers has been carried out by rangers patrolling Africa's savannas and forests, and by sniffer dogs and customs officials scouring its air- and seaports.
Both have had success, but both are expensive and do little to address the dictates of economics that rule that, like narcotics, if there's a demand, there will be a supplier.
"As a movement we're putting a minuscule amount of money into reducing the demand compared to preventing the poaching," says Peter Knights, WildAid's executive director.
"My feeling is that we need to shift some of that money onto the demand side, to educate people who might buy ivory about the deadly business of ivory poaching."
Changing perspectives in China
There are hugely damaging misconceptions about ivory in Asian markets, according to a 2007 study for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Almost 70 percent of Chinese people surveyed said that they did not know an elephant had to be killed for its tusks to be taken. In the follow-up question, 80 percent of respondents then said that now they knew, they'd not buy ivory.
"It'll take 10 years, probably less, and then that education is locked in forever and we don't need to come back to it," Mr. Knights says.
And the approach works. In a similar campaign, also featuring Yao, the focus was shark fin soup, once a highly prized dish served on special occasions throughout China.
Like owning ivory, ordering shark fin soup was becoming a way for members of China's new middle class to show their wealth and their increasing access to the trappings of elite society.
Not anymore. In July, facing increasing public pressure, China's government said it would no longer serve the delicacy at any state banquet.
"Now it's something almost shameful for young middle-class people to eat," Yao says. "And I think that shark fin is harder to ban than ivory because there is a huge business chain involved whose living relied on shark fin, from fishing to shipping to sales, and many people could buy it. That's not the same with ivory."
Changing public perceptions about shark fin, using the television advertisements and billboards, was a crucial step to allow the government to announce its decision, Knights says.
"The ground had been prepared so that when they banned it, it already had overwhelming public support, and that makes it much easier."
That, essentially, is what is being tried with elephant ivory.
"This new surge in poaching is right across Africa, and scientists recognize it's caused by a rise in the demand for ivory, which is at an all-time high," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, which worked with Yao during his Kenya visit.
"The price has also never been so high. It is now time for individuals, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and governments to reduce that demand, and Chinese leadership is a vital factor."