By Steve Galster, Freeland Founder & Director
Cultivating Compassion for Wildlife via Free Thinking
Far behind the frontline of the killing fields, where rangers are battling it out with armed gangs to protect wild animals in remote jungles and border areas, another front is opening up against poaching. The military would call it ‘Psyops’. The corporate world calls it marketing. The development world has dubbed it ‘behavior change’.
We are talking about winning hearts and minds. In the world of wild animal conservation, the game is demand reduction. Specifically: reducing commercial demand for wild animals that drives the poaching in the first place.
People like Joe (see ‘Lessons about life and death from prison’) are risking their freedom –and sometimes their lives– to make a lot of money from wildlife consumers. Poaching of elephants is driven by commercial demand for ivory products for jewelry and ornaments ($6,000/kilo before carving the tusk). Rhinos are dying in large numbers because of a lucrative market in their horn, used for medicine and high-society tonics ($65,000/kilo wholesale). Tigers are killed for their beautiful skins to show off, and for their bones and organs, which are used to make wines, tonics and soups ($40,000/dead body). Rare turtles and tortoises are being grabbed from natural riverbeds to feed a huge market for pets, exotic meat and medicines: prices vary widely. The list goes on in the global, multi-billion trade in rare and endangered species.
The complex wildlife trade warrants a complex response. I’ve written about some facets of that response in other posts – counter poaching, undercover investigations, following dirty money— , but the question always comes up: “What are we doing about the demand”?
Some people ask, “Can’t you just farm these animals to feed the demand, thereby taking pressure off the wild populations?”
No. You cannot.
But this question still comes up, especially when one learns that the trade in tiger bone, rhino horn, or other wildlife products dates back a thousand years or so. So an explanation is in order.
Legalizing a commercial trade in a rare or endangered species in order to save that species does not work. Farms or no farms. Why? Because a legal market will spawn a parallel illegal market. One cannot stimulate demand for tigers, for example, and satisfy that demand with ‘farmed tigers’ because traffickers will find a way to supply the same market more cheaply with poached wild tigers, providing themselves with an even heftier profit. The trafficker would rather buy a tiger from a poacher for $1,000 than from a farm for $5,000-$10,000, before he turns around and sells it for $40,000. Remember Joe? That’s what he and his partners did. Over and over.
But we still hear the cry from a loud and dangerous minority: “Open the trade, regulate it, and use the profits to save the rhino (tiger, lion, elephant, etc).” The cry is coupled with reasoning that long-standing consumer behavior cannot be changed. And that the consumption of animals in some places is so deeply embedded in their cultures, it just can’t be changed. Their suggestion: Ride the wave of consumerism and plough the proceeds from sale of farmed rhino horn, tiger bone, and other endangered animal body parts back into conservation to fund anti-poaching efforts and local community needs.
Give in, they say, to natural human behavior and free trade economics.
Why not legalize human trafficking while we are at it.
The good news: long-standing consumer behavior can change. In fact, wildlife demand reduction is starting to show signs of progress. The simple secret seems to be this: let people learn and share the truth about cruelty and waste, and most will act compassionately.
Getting inside our hearts and heads
Several years back, my staff at Freeland organized a unique brainstorm session. We pulled together wildlife conservationists from across Asia, and sat them across the table from behavior change experts and marketing strategists from the business and advertising world. We then conference called in a former wildlife trader and former poacher. Our mission: to find a way to stop people from buying endangered wildlife. The ‘wildlife consumption brainstorm session’ took place in the fancy Rembrandt Room of the JWT advertising firm in Bangkok, chaired by the brilliant creative director of JWT’s Southeast Asian hub, Hans Mueller.
But I was nervous. To me, this mission was very different to JWT’s usual marketing campaigns in that we were trying to convince consumers NOT to buy a product. Could these ad men really help us? After patiently listening to us wildlife folks talk (and we can talk), Hans and his team finally spoke up.
Echoing Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke, Hans said, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Hans told us that we were talking to one another, but not to the real world. Wildlife conservationists account for .00 something percent of the global population. Hardly anyone besides us was even thinking about wildlife trade. “You can’t conduct a campaign to stop wildlife trade until your audience knows there is a wildlife trade, how bad it is, and why it’s bad. So the first order of business: get the conversation started.” He added: “…and not from you conservationists to the consumers, but among consumers and potential consumers.” JWT’s CEO, Bob Hekkelman added that “today’s consumer smells marketing 500 kilometers away, so be soft and straight because they can and will check whether your claims are true or false.”
“Should we not just inform the public that rhino horn is made of the same stuff as finger nails and hair, that tiger bone is hocus pocus, and that ivory means death for elephants,” we asked? They might not believe us, was the answer. “You’re NGOs”. Might even stop the conversation before it gets started. Hans and the JWT team advised us that the best way to start the conversation is through a ‘KOL’ (Key Opinion Leader). People are hit with so many messages per day that you have to stop them in their tracks (and social networking scrolls) through the familiar image of someone they like. Could be an actor or actress, sports star, humanitarian, whatever. Depends on your target audience.
This approach was not completely new for wildlife activists. Some celebrities had already featured in very slick ads appealing to the public to stop buying shark fin, tiger bone, etc. But the behavior change experts suggested we needed an important new wrinkle: No preaching. Don’t push the message, they warned. Just get the conversation about wildlife trade going and let it naturally evolve and hopefully go viral. Then when your target audience is interested, step in and step it up, and let them keep chiming in. This meant something new for us NGOs: no scripts for our spokespersons, and stand back and let other people talk.
We all looked around at one another. We worried about this approach. What if the conversation led to people promoting wildlife farming? Legalizing trade? Or buying animals to protect them? But we were desperate. Not much else was working. After 2 more brainstorms in Hanoi and Beijing, we took a deep breath and decided to give this approach a try. We then took the data from our wildlife trade surveys and painted a picture of our target, the consumer. We also looked at the potential consumer just in case we didn’t have the time and money to change the current consumer’s mind.
Then we identified the ‘KOLs’ that appealed to our target audience. Since the bulk of wildlife trade in Asia goes through Thailand, Vietnam and China, we focused there. Finally, we nervously approached the KOLs to see if they were willing and able to start the conversation on wildlife trade in their own words. For free. We chose wisely. Almost every KOL we approached said ‘yes’.
Our partner AsiaWorks TV sat the KOLs down in a studio, one-by-one, opposite a professional interviewer, where we showed them real pictures of wildlife in trade (invariably horrific), provided facts about poaching and trafficking, and then the interviewer asked the KOL, “So what do you think?”
The responses were moving. All of them. And they were all different. Not surprisingly, the famous news anchors we recruited were slicker than the police chiefs we invited, but in the end, we selected the most poignant and sincere words from each KOL, and then produced 30-second Public Service Announcements from them, under the banner ‘iTHINK’.
I find this counter poaching approach fascinating. Not only is it exciting to meet and get to know famous movers and shakers, but it’s also great working with and learning from communications experts, like those at JWT, AsiaWorks Television, and Rapid-Asia and FHI360 behavior change firms, as well as our NGO partners in China, Vietnam and Thailand, like IFAW and ENV. And this whole approach, if it works, means we aren’t just sticking our law enforcement fingers in the dike against poaching and trafficking. If we can take away the demand, the swell of killing will go down.
The ‘iTHINK’ campaign is pretty new. In China, more than 10 KOLs have stepped into the studio to speak up for elephants, thanks to IFAW and Freeland. These include a superstar actress, Wang Luodan, who just breaks my heart when she speaks gently to the viewer over pictures of live and dead elephants:
Guo Peng hosts a nationally famous talk show about antiquities and antique dealing. During his studio interview, he admits that, “I was struck when I saw an image of a dead elephant with his head cut off in one of the iTHINK videos. I never knew that ivory was obtained like that!” He publicly pledged never to buy or promote the sale of ivory again.
Chinese business tycoons and other KOLs joined ‘iTHINK’ in China. Recently, the US Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, did his own ‘iTHINK” ad, diplomatically refraining from pointing fingers when he says to the camera, “We must all do our part to end wildlife trafficking.” Ambassador Baucus followed the example of career Ambassador Kristy Kenny, the first US official to speak her mind on camera in ‘iTHINK’, when she reminded viewers that:
In Vietnam, 10 KOLs have signed up for ‘iTHINK’, including the famous comedian Ong Vu Minh Ly, a senior police official, a senior health official, and others. Joining them soon is the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Theodore Osius, who has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of renormalization of US-Vietnam relations, reminding the public that the two countries are now allies in a fight against a new common enemy: wildlife crime.
The presence of US diplomats among Asian KOLs in ‘iTHINK’ is fitting and effective. The USA is the second biggest importer of wildlife in the world, so this is far from being just an Asian problem. The USA is coming to the counter wildlife trafficking table as an equal offender, stakeholder and helper. Behavior change meets public diplomacy. And it’s working. Like with the Vietnamese and Thai officials, Chinese government officers are now following the US Ambassadors by signing up for their own public service announcement. And production of “iTHINK” is being sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development.
Perhaps I’m biased living in Thailand, but some of my favorite ‘iTHINK’ messages come from Thai KOLs, like superstar Kong Saharat, who speaks from his heart when he says:
Heart-throb TV actress Noona Nuengthida speaks about the trade in live wild animals as exotic pets. She asks the viewer what they think when they see photos shown across the screen of baby primates. “Cute, right?” she asks. Then over pictures of caged and abused wild primates, she asks again, “If you truly loved them and knew the truth about wildlife pets, would you still want to buy them?” She then pledges not to buy them and asks the viewer: