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.

William Davies/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Former NBA star Yao Ming visits an elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. The former athlete is urging his fellow Chinese to stop purchasing ivory products.
Former NBA star Yao Ming views an elephant carcass. The animal was killed for its ivory tusks, highly valued in China.

It's a little after sunrise on a chilly Friday morning, and one of the world's tallest living men, former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, stands towering over a 10-day-old baby elephant called Kinango.

With a red-and-black checked blanket over his back to ward off the cold, Kinango playfully head-butts the 7 ft. 6 in. former NBA player's legs, barely reaching his knees.

"It's hard to think something so small will grow up to be so big," Mr. Yao says, fully aware of the self-effacing humor in his words.

Sadly, it is once again far from certain that Kinango, whose mother was killed by poachers and who is now cared for at Nairobi's elephant orphanage, will grow to full size and live an elephant's full life of many decades.

Rising demand among China's newly wealthy middle class has seen the price of ivory triple in five years.

Seizures of smuggled African tusks have doubled in less than a year, to more than 23 tons in 2011, signaling the death of perhaps 4,500 elephants. There are only an estimated 400,000 left in Africa.

The crisis, the like of which has not been seen since the 1980s, has conservationists thinking again about how to stop the slaughter.

And they have come up with some clever new approaches, based on the simple mathematics of economics: Remove the demand for ivory, and you cut the supply.

The supply still comes from Africa – from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The biggest demand, now, by far, is in China.

That is why Yao, China's best-known sportsman, who carried his country's flag into the Bird's Nest stadium at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is in Kenya, filming a documentary about poaching.

Harnessing star power

He is one of a dozen of China's most famous actors, athletes, talk-show hosts, and musicians lending their names to recent conservation campaigns inside their homeland.

Many are directed by WildAid, a charity based in San Francisco, which uses slick television advertisements featuring these superstars and the simple slogan, "When the buying stops, the killing will too."

Such ads are now common on Chinese television. Anti-poaching posters with similar slogans fill billboards in Chinese cities, including one hoisted above a subway station serving Guangzhou city's famous Ivory Street.

"To win this battle against poaching, we need multiple approaches," Yao told the Monitor during his visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which runs the elephant orphanage.

"What I am trying to do is to raise people's awareness, to show them the reality of the ivory business. When the killing of elephants happens 10,000 miles away from you, it's easy to hide yourself from that truth. If we show people, they will stop buying ivory. Then elephants will stop dying."

Time is short, but with the involvement of global figures like Yao, it may not be too late, says Elodie Sampere, head of conservation marketing at Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy in central Kenya.

"I don't think any other celebrity has the kind of pull that he has, both East and West, and the awareness he'll raise I think cannot be beaten," she says.

"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."

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."

Getting the message out in Africa ...

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

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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