Thai animal activists try shame

New ads targeting animal products aired last week ahead of a UN convention on protected species.

The advertisement shows a soup tureen on a dimly lit table, its contents hidden by a ceramic lid painted in the style of a Chinese tombstone. Its message? Shark's-fin soup, a pricey Asian delicacy, is not only threatening endangered sharks, it can also be bad for your health.

Launched in Thailand by WildAid, a US-based conservation group, the 2001 ad campaign quickly hit the target. A survey in Bangkok found a 32 percent drop in consumption of shark's-fin soup. Angry Chinese restaurant owners retorted with a $2.7 million lawsuit - just dismissed last month - against the group for claiming that shark fins contain high levels of mercury.

Emboldened by the legal victory, WildAid debuted a new series of TV spots last week modeled on the shark-fin campaign. The ads come as Thailand prepares to host the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in October, a biennial UN review of protected species under threat from poaching and loss of habitat.

Ahead of the convention, Thai police have cracked down on zoos that are suspected of animal smuggling and abuses such as training orangutans to kickbox. But the new ad campaign represents an increasing focus on curbing consumer demand for wildlife products - the driving force behind the rampant poaching in Asia's forests and jungles.

"You must try to reach people in the urban areas who see endangered animals for sale and appeal to them not to buy wildlife," says Anthony Lynam, regional adviser to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which trains park rangers and border police to fight poachers.

WildAid enlisted local celebrities for the latest TV spots, which highlight the plight of 11 endangered species. "What we're trying to do is make Thailand a model for Southeast Asia and drive consumption down further," explains Steve Galster, a founder of WildAid. "If Thais know how animals get to them and how they suffer, it really turns them off."

Targeting young consumers seen as more receptive to environmental issues, the spots urge viewers not to buy rare animals as cute pets, or buy skins and trinkets. It includes a police hotline to report illegal sellers, under the tagline: "When the buying stops, the killing can too."

Cindy Burbridge, a Thai-born model and actress who presents the WildAid spot on sharks and tropical fish, says the campaign is swimming against a tide of indifference among Thai youth that is starting to turn. "It's a slow and painful process," she admits, "and the challenge is to make [conservation] a responsibility for everyone."

She points to the shark's-fin soup controversy as a sign of changing attitudes. Several friends stopped eating the soup in response to the ads, though others have probably just stopped inviting her to join them, she admits. "I get very emotional about it. But people don't want to hear a sermon."

The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth over $8 billion, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, though experts say it's impossible to pinpoint statistics. Southeast Asia's tropical forests are a rich fount of rare species that are slowly falling prey to poacher's guns. Among those facing extinction are the Sumatran rhino - only 300 or less are estimated to survive in Indonesia. And three-fourths of Asia's turtle population are listed as threatened, according to TRAFFIC, a UK campaign group.

Also facing an uncertain future are tigers, which once roamed across Asia. Only 5,000 to 7,000 are thought to remain in the wild today, mostly in India and Nepal. However, hundreds of captive-bred tigers are kept in private zoos in Thailand, which are heavily marketed to foreign tourists as a chance to see endangered species.

Animal-welfare groups accuse some zoos of exploiting tigers and other wildlife, as well as conniving in smuggling rings. Until recently, police have been slow to investigate these allegations. But last month, Safari World, an animal park near Bangkok, was forced to suspend an orangutan kickboxing show after public complaints. The docile apes had been trained to fight in a boxing ring for tourists.

The case has since snowballed as police have charged the park's owner with illegally importing dozens of orangutans from Indonesia. Habitat destruction and poaching has cut the orangutan population in Indonesia and Malaysia to under 30,000, according to the World Wife Fund.

Mr. Galster says the Safari World case is an important step by Thai authorities, who have let other zoo owners off the hook in the past, including those allegedly breeding animals for export. Last October, police recovered tiger carcasses and bear paws from a Bangkok warehouse where live animals were also held. The meat was destined for restaurants in Thailand that serve rare delicacies to Asian tourists.

More broadly, campaigners want to see captive animals used to educate the public about the fate of those in the wild, in order to enlist their help in conservation. Private zoos "are not doing this, you see the tigers and you don't understand what's happening in the wild," says Mr. Lynam.

Many of the tourist-oriented zoos are doing little to enlighten visitors. At one park outside the resort town of Pattaya, Africans are hired to pose in animal skins next to tigers kept behind glass (tigers are native to Asia, not Africa).

Experts say the biggest consumer by far of rare species - and the market that must be tackled next - is China. Its consumption ranges from black bears to tigers and rhinos, fueling a lucrative underground trade in Southeast Asia. Many animals are destined for a banquet table or for traditional medicine.

A single tiger smuggled overland to China can fetch $50,000. In May, Thai police arrested a trader traveling to neighboring Laos with a slain 350-pound female tiger sliced in half and hidden in the trunk of his car. Investigators suspect this tiger was bred in captivity; only 250 wild tigers still remain in Thailand and neighboring Malaysia, estimates Lynam.

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