How can we make the year of the rat an auspicious year for elephants?

By Margaret Kinnaird, Wildlife Practice Leader, WWF International

© WWF / James Morgan

Two massive migrations are about to take place, half a world apart. One is the tens of millions of Chinese and Vietnamese travellers that are preparing to travel for the Lunar New Year, often to destinations in Southeast Asia. And the other is the less joyous movement of illegal traffickers who are transporting elephant tusks from various ports in Africa, across the Indian Ocean to eventually reach Southeast and East Asia.

These tusks, violently taken from elephants killed by poachers, are being moved across the world to supply a voracious demand for illegal amulets, jewelry, decoration and traditional medicine — often from the very travellers that are ringing in the Year of the Rat. More than 20,000 elephants are victims of this kind of poaching a year.

© WWF / Green Renaissance

Although China banned its domestic ivory trade at the end of 2017, there is still an active illegal market for African ivory in Asia that is fueled in large part by Chinese consumers. Despite an unequivocal global ban on the commercial international trade of ivory, a 2019 study of ivory consumption by Chinese nationals found that 27% of those who had traveled outside of China at least once a year had purchased ivory while abroad. The top destinations for these purchases were Thailand, Hong Kong SAR, Cambodia, and Japan, some of which still have legal domestic ivory markets.

There is also a worrying increase in demand for ivory amongst Vietnamese nationals and travellers. An analysis presented at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in August 2019 identifies Vietnam as the biggest destination country for trafficked ivory, surpassing China for the first time. There are also increasing numbers of Vietnamese tourists travelling to Thailand to buy ivory and illegally transporting it back home.

Given the number of Chinese and Vietnamese travelers celebrating Lunar New Year, this could be a rough week for elephants.

Massive effort and money is spent on anti-poaching efforts in Africa, but the rangers can’t keep up with the proliferation of poachers or their increasing access to improved weaponry and technology, and the profit that can be made from “white gold” still outweighs the risk of being caught.

If the poaching of elephants is to be stopped and this majestic animal protected in the wild, the prestige value of ivory needs to drop. For that to happen, demand must be significantly reduced and Asian ivory markets closed.

Closing Asia’s Ivory Markets

Recognizing this link between poaching and markets, WWF has committed to reducing demand for ivory in Asia, specifically in China. WWF envisions a future in which legal and illegal elephant ivory markets no longer exist in Asia and consumers view buying ivory as socially unacceptable. As such, WWF is working with partners and governments in Asia on the Ivory Initiative.

© Martin Harvey / WWF

While continuing to work with and lobby Asian governments to close legal and illegal ivory markets, WWF is using precision marketing to target consumers who might purchase ivory. This approach identifies groups that have a high potential to purchase ivory — for instance, overseas Chinese travellers — and delivers tailored messages through social media and physical materials to deter them from buying or trafficking ivory. These messages target potential buyers at times and locations where their likelihood of engaging in the illegal ivory trade is highest.

To date, WWF has had a great deal of success enlisting the support of celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and the actress and singer Li Bingbing to spread the word about the importance of reducing ivory consumption. The Ivory Initiative has also engaged major players in the tourism and travel sector, such as TripAdvisor, C-Trip, Thai Airways, and Cathay Pacific to support the ongoing #TravelIvoryFree campaign which encourages travellers to engage in elephant friendly tourism. These partners have helped deliver high impact messages during peak travel seasons like Lunar New Year and Chinese Golden Week to tourists on their way to destinations where ivory purchase volumes have been high in the past, including Thailand and Hong Kong SAR.

This targeted marketing, in tandem with improved oversight of enforcement efforts by governments in the region, has yielded some promising results.

For instance, during Golden Week 2019, WWF’s campaign materials were viewed 70 million times, and garnered 1.6 million pledges to travel ivory free. Given the success and reach of this and previous campaigns, Zhu Yilong, an incredibly popular Chinese actor, agreed to be WWF’s celebrity ambassador to stop wildlife crime and will use the occasion of Lunar New Year to call on public to reduce their demand for ivory.

In 2020, the year of the rat, we have an incredible opportunity to turn things around and commit to protecting the elephant populations of Africa by reducing demand for ivory in Asia. If we build on this campaign and commit to a New Deal for Nature and People to sway public opinion, mobilizing media, businesses and international organizations as well as governments to help stabilize and reverse biodiversity decline, we can make a difference in the trajectory of our and the elephants’ futures and protect our shared natural heritage.

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