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The Psychology of Conservation

How many people would click on a red box on a website homepage that says, ‘do not click here’?


We put that box on our homepage with a link through to a picture of a Chimp with their head in their hands (as many of you reading this post may already know!) as a bit of fun to see who would click through.


It turns out most visitors do!


Interestingly, that is what we expected to happen; it’s just some basic psychology.


A box like that is too tantalising not to click on.


But this is not just some website trick, it has significant implications for wildlife conservation.


Fundamentally, it is about finding ways to get people to change their behaviour.

Chimpanzee with his head in his hands

The Psychology of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Perhaps the biggest impact is in the illegal wildlife trade.


A multi-billion-dollar annual trade is threatening species with extinction, and the misuse of psychology is at its heart.


Rhino horn is a great example. It sells for more than gold, advertised as anything from a cure for a hangover to a means to enhance virility.


But rhino horn is made of keratin – that’s what fingernails are made of.


That has not stopped it becoming a status symbol, a means for people to flaunt their wealth; like buying a Rolls Royce car or Gucci handbag, buying rhino horn is a visible display of how rich a person is.


Imagine spending $60,000 on a kilogram of fingernails, it would be mad, yet that is what rhino horn is selling for.


All because of psychology. It’s like the Emperor’s clothes; people being tricked into spending a lot of money on something that is worthless.


Only in this case it has led to the deaths of thousands of rhinos.


And many other species as well; elephants hunted for their ivory, tigers for their bones, and pangolins for their scales.

Behaviour Change for Conservation


It is not all doom and gloom, thankfully. We can use some of the same techniques to SAVE wildlife.


For example, we could create new products as alternatives to rhino horn and other animal products and use psychology in advertising to make those products much more desirable.


DeBeers famously used advertising to create huge demand for diamonds. If we can do something similar for conservation, we could have a massive impact on stopping extinction.

Some work has already been done in this area, although so far to limited effect.


Ogilvy, a famous advertising company, worked with WWF Hong Kong to change the words used to describe ivory, for example, to shock consumers into realising buying ivory meant killing elephants.


Campaigns with famous Chinese basketball player Yao Ming have also been run to try to reduce demand.


While these sorts of campaigns have had some positive effects, they often focus too much on arguments about animal welfare delivered by celebrities, which many consumers of wildlife products don’t care about and do not trust.


We always need to make sure our messaging is relevant to our audience, not relevant to us.


Stopping Illegal Bushmeat


Behaviour science is not just for wealthy consumers, though, it can also help address demand among poor communities.


My favourite example of this comes from one of our partner charities, the Pole Pole Foundation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Hearing that many western visitors to the gorillas were vegans, some women in the local community wanted to find out more and ended up becoming vegans themselves.


Not only that, they encouraged others to do the same, and now there is a vegan association offering advice to people on what veganism is and how to switch to a plant-based diet.


Not what you would expect from somewhere like the Congo, where the only news that we usually here is about war and disease, which is what makes it such a great story.


Most people in Congo eat meat and it is a luxury, but veganism appeals as it creates a positive and aspirational identity out of not eating meat. Meat is expensive, so not eating meat would usually be a sign of poverty; but by being vegan, people show they have made a choice, taking away the stigma.

(Interestingly, there’s a theory that cycling caught on in the UK because bike prices and equipment went so high; by spending a lot of money on their bikes, commuters could show cycling was a choice, not a money saver, which made it socially acceptable.)


Another example comes from Zambia, where one of our partner charities the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation supports Game Rangers International.


In Zambia, the biggest problem facing conservation is poaching for a massive illegal bushmeat trade. Animals are caught and then the meat is smoked (a bit like Biltong) so that it can be transported and stored safely without need for refrigeration.


Conservation NGOs in Zambia have been working to change Zambians’ behaviour, trying to reduce demand for illegal bushmeat and encourage legal consumption instead.

Perception is Everything


As we have seen from the demand for diamonds and rhino horn, clever advertising and use of psychology can create demand for almost anything.


While to date that has mostly caused harm to wildlife, a growing movement is using it for good instead.


So, what does a red box on a homepage saying ‘do not click here’ have to do with conservation?


As it turns out, quite a lot.


Our work to create board games to help save wildlife is one small part of the global effort needed to help consumers buy products that save wildlife, to fight back against the criminals killing wildlife and selling products into the illegal wildlife trade.


Every purchase includes a donation to our four partner charities, and you get to take on the challenge of saving an endangered species yourself in the game.


So, perhaps the most appropriate words to finish this piece are, ‘Please don’t visit our shop’.

Conservation Crisis Wildlife-Themed Educational Family Board Game for Ages 7+ Box