Ethics Won’t Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Many campaigns to bring an end to the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) focus on the ethics of killing animals for their parts, imploring people to see how wrong such action is. However, it is questionable whether such approaches will convince the population at large of the need to change behaviour.

Some success in this area will no doubt be achieved, and indeed already has been, and approaches in similar fields such as raising awareness about the harm caused by battery farming chickens have led to significant changes. However, battery farming still exists. Vegans’ attempt to shame people into changing their behaviour also has not proved that effective – it works for some people, without a doubt, but does not seem to work with the population at large.

Furthermore, different animals attract different reverence in different cultures. For example, many in the western world view elephants as one of the most iconic species on earth and would be shocked at any poaching, however they may not be as bothered by campaigns to poison rats, slugs or other so-called ‘pests’.

Even those who support the badger cull over accusations they spread TB might be appalled at the idea of elephants being killed. Yet contrast that with people for whom elephants are just another pest, destroying crops and homes, and an ethical argument will fall on deaf ears; to those people elephants are not an iconic animal, they are a pest just like many people consider badgers and foxes to be.

We therefore need to be very careful relying solely on ethical arguments to try to bring an end to IWT.

Campaigns are far more effective when they appeal to the interest of different groups of people in different ways, and appeal to the most basic instincts to achieve the most power. Here, much can be learned from advertising and marketing – how a whole range of products can be made very appealing to a wider range of people, and change behaviour. Fashion would be another – getting people to change everything from their clothes to their skin tattooing based on changing fashions.

It is not ethics that is appealed to (indeed, the fashion industry is hugely damaging to the environment, and a number of human rights abuses have been reported), but rather the desire to appear on-trend, to be like others, and so on. It is also an opportunity to visibly showcase their fashion to others around them and the world at large – it is far easier to show something you have off, than to show off not-having something.

If we are to effectively address IWT, we need to use some of these same approaches. We need to find ways to change the fashions that currently drive IWT and offer alternatives that allow people to showcase they are on trend in a way that benefits conservation. Crucially, we need even people who don’t care about wildlife to still adopt the trends that will help save animals – maintaining a purely ‘wildlife is great’ message is simply preaching to the choir and for many people will fall on deaf ears.

By way of example, take the purchase of rhino horn as conspicuous consumption, with people shaving it into drinks at up-market parties in Asia. Rather than simply telling these people how awful it is for rhinos, a far better approach is to come up with alternative products which achieve the same end for the consumer – in this case showing off to their friends and networks how wealthy they are – but which help rhinos.

For example, creating a hugely expensive brand of coffee (such as the infamous Kopil luwak), which helps support rhino conservation would offer such an alternative. Instead of shaving rhino horn into drinks, the new trend could be made creating espresso shots of Rhino coffee. That is maybe not a realistic solution, but it serves as a simple example of the sort of thing that could happen.

Importantly, the development of these new products would not only reduce demand for IWT products, but also provide funding for conservation through revenue shares. And, perhaps most importantly, because these products would be sold by businesses seeking to make a profit, they can attract investment and spend huge sums hiring the best advertising agencies to push their product to market and achieve the behaviour changes they desire.

Rather than raising donations to fund campaigns to reduce demand for IWT from people passionate about conservation, then, the very people who were the demand for IWT would be in fact be funding the campaigns to bring it to an end, because they would be purchasing these new products.

Indeed, it would be quite a remarkable turnaround if the estimated $19 billion a year current IWT trade instead all became products that helped save wildlife, converting that $19 billion of harm into $19 billion of support, all with no need for more donations.

It is those approaches that can have a massive impact on fighting IWT and be the game changers we need, and which are far more likely to be effective than always preaching the same sole ineffective message about animal welfare.

Note: To be clear, at Tunza Games we think animal welfare is vital and a hugely important message to convey to people, that we need to be protecting these wonderful, sentient animals. However, we are also realists and understand it will not work on everyone, certainly not in the short-term, so new approaches are required. The best campaigns are the ones where even people that don’t care about what you care about still do what you want them to do – the reason isn’t important, the actions are. An important lesson for climate change as well as IWT.