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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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Many other organizations are working in innovative new ways to achieve the same end with ivory poaching.

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Among the new tactics are arrangements with Kenya's embassy in Beijing to issue every Chinese citizen who is given a Kenya visa a special passport cover that carries messages about the illegality of smuggling ivory.

When China Mobile cellphone subscribers roam on Kenya's Safaricom and Airtel networks, the first text message they receive welcomes them to Kenya – and warns that poaching is against the law.

In hotels popular with Chinese workers and tourists in Nairobi, conservationists have won permission from the management to put brochures in rooms carrying messages about penalties for smuggling ivory.

"There is a very big push to make sure that these messages are reaching Chinese visitors both before they get here, and then when they arrive too," says James Isiche, director in Kenya of IFAW.

... And in China

In China, IFAW has won millions of dollars of pro bono advertising space on billboards and online to push its message. WildAid has found the same willingness for Chinese television firms to offer free ad spots.

Baidu, the world's largest Chinese-language search and photo upload site, now activates anti-poaching pop-ups every time any photograph is added or downloaded, something that happens 10 million times a day.

Earlier this year it banned 13 chat forums where users were discussing buying and selling endangered animal products, including ivory, rhino horn, and tiger bone. At the same time, 34,000 archived forum posts were deleted.

Another Chinese Amazon-like site, Taobao, scrapped sales of ivory products and has since worked with conservation volunteers to monitor for new words users were coming up with to describe ivory, and filter them out, too.

"There are 524 million Chinese people online," says Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for IFAW. "Removing these platforms is very important."

'Shifting the demand curve'

Increasingly smugglers were seen using traditional national postal systems and international courier companies to move ivory, especially within Asia.

As soon as that trend was spotted, IFAW began educational seminars with workers to explain how to look out for ivory products and how to report them – and to make clear that there were penalties for collusion with the smugglers.

But those penalties are still neither strong enough nor properly enforced, Ms. Gabriel argues. "The penalties need to be increased everywhere."

"The current slap on the wrist, a fine or confiscating ivory, is not enough," she says. "The deterrent has to be stronger; the laws have to be tightened.

"We need truly to make this illegal and bloody business high risk, and the return on capital too low to be profitable."

It's the language of economics again.

Back at Nairobi's elephant orphanage, Knights, the WildAid director, echoes Gabriel.

"All that we need to do is to shift the demand curve so that nobody wants to buy ivory. We decrease the profitability by increasing the costs at the supply end, and reduce the demand at the market end," he says.

"If the buying stops, the killing will, too," he says, simply. "It's necessary, now, and most important, it's doable."

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