Can we reduce the demand for animal products?

06 March 2018

Interview with

Sabri Zain, TRAFFIC

However much you try and prevent poaching and trafficking, none of it would be happening if there wasn’t a huge demand for these products. So can we reduce this? Chris Smith and Georgia Mills were joined by Sabri Zain, Director of Policy at the wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC.

Sabri - Demand for ivory and rhino horn and other products they’ve existed for years for a variety of uses, whether it’s for traditional use or ornamental, but the challenge now I think is a far more complex issue right now. Markets are changing and a lot of these countries now have booming economies. With rhino horn for example, it’s not just traditional medicine now, it’s also used as a hangover cure, or it’s used for corporate gifting so there are a lot of psychological reasons behind the demand. Our approach to reducing this demand has to be a lot more sophisticated.

Chris - What do you do to try and change the behaviour of the men, women, and children on the street?

Sabri - This goes beyond awareness raising through posters and TV spots because, as I said before, we are not just at looking at traditional usage, you’re looking at people’s lifestyles, people’s attitudes and motivations.

So to address that problem we really need to understand the consumer down to the psychological traits such as what are the motivations, beliefs, attitudes of this consumer towards this product, and what can we do to change that behaviour?

The person may be buying an ivory tusk as a corporate gift. We’ve been working with Chinese auction houses, for example, who are offering animal themed figures in amber, in jade which would make a splendid corporate gift so you don’t need to kill an elephant to get the status that you seek.

Georgia - So once you understand why those products are being used it becomes much easier to then try and change behaviour. Where does this message need to come from?

Sabri - We’ve done a lot of studies which shows that the last person this message should come from is a conservation NGO such as mine. Because a lot of these consumers will say oh, you’re conservation NGO, of course you’ll say that and they’re not going to believe you, so we really have to make sure that we get the right messengers.

Celebrities work with a wide audience, but what we’ve found is that, for example, a lot of the corporate gifting, a lot of the career advancement, motivations of these people we need to use business leaders who these people look on as models saying no, this kind of behaviour is not acceptable and they will model themselves to that.

Chris - What’s the level of commitment at the top level - government level - to actually do this kind of thing? Are countries motivated to help in this mission or, actually, don’t they care?

Sabri - I think people now recognise that if you don’t address the demand that is driving this trade while traders will find whatever way the can to circumvent the law, and I think there’s a growing recognition of that. The UN General Assembly resolution on wildlife trafficking that was adopted in 2015 highlighted demand reduction as an important issue and CITES had its first ever resolution on demand reduction as well. There’s a major conference being held in London in October this year. Heads of State are going to be there. This high level commitment is very important to making sure that action on the ground happens.

Chris - Do these organisations actually have teeth? Can they do something?

Sabri - CITES certainly has teeth. Not only is it a legally binding treaty but countries that do not comply with CITES provisions face trade sanctions in CITES listed species. So, for example, last year Thailand was under threat of a CITES sanction, if they did not address their illegal ivory problems and CITES trade sanctions for Thailand would result in billions of losses for example their orchid trade. So CITES does have teeth but I think CITES also can provide the support, the expertise, the knowledge to help these countries address these problems.

Chris - Has all this been successful? Are you seeing the direction of travel if you like being in the right direction?

Sabri - One of the most significant conservation successes of the last year was China imposing a ban on its commercial ivory trade; that is going to have a huge impact. Three years ago, if you told me that China was going to ban its ivory trade I would have said whatever you’re smoking I want some.

That’s not the end of the story. It’s going to have a huge impact but it can also move the market elsewhere, so countries really need to follow suit so as not to undermine the successes that we’ve found in China.

Chris - Just bringing you back in, Sam Wassar, you’ve been listening to that. Does this give you cause to be enthused, do you think things are going in the right direction?

Sam - I think we’re still in a pretty scary place myself. I think that a lot of countries are not doing all that they can in this situation. I think that sometimes things are not what they seem and I’ll just give you an example with China. It’s wonderful that China has closed down their markets but when you look at all of the ivory that is being seized each year, in my opinion there’s far more than what’s ending up in the markets.

What I think is actually happening is some very wealthy people are buying these large whole tusks and they’re stockpiling those and waiting for conditions to open up again, perhaps if elephants go extinct, and then they will make a fortune. When that kind of thing happens all of these fixes are complicated and that’s not to say that we don’t need everything, we clearly need demand reduction. Demand reduction is the way that we keep those individuals that are stockpiling being able to profit from it but, until that happens, it’s very very complicated.

Georgia - Going forward there’s this conference coming up, what change would you like to see implemented?

Sam - Again, I’m a big proponent of demand reduction. The one problem I have with it is I think it’s too slow because we are killing so many elephants. If we’re killing 40,000 a year and there’s 400,000 left we have an urgency, and when we take a large seizure and we genotype it and get this information from it, it’s so valuable what it tells us about how this trade is operating, who’s connected.

One of the biggest problems is that we get these seizures very late. We get them one, sometimes two years late and, what we need to do is we need to make these countries understand how important it is to give us access to that information as quickly as we can so it has the maximum law enforcement action tied to it.

Georgia - Sabri, would you agree? What would you like to see in October?

Sabri - I absolutely agree with everything that Sam’s said. We’ve seen incremental progress, incremental change, but we really haven’t seen this push towards the systemic problems that are causing illegal wildlife trade: corruption, poverty, ensuring that there’s a strong local community engagement and buy-in into anti-poaching activities. I think what the conference would benefit greatly from is looking at those broader themes. Looking at not just seizing ivory but looking at financial crime; following the money where the kingpins are. There’s still not enough of that being done and engaging the private sector. The transport companies, e-commerce companies, and especially online technology companies because as these physical markets are being shut down around the world that’s where all the wildlife traders are going to. They're going online, they’re going to social media and I’m not sure we’re ready to tackle that and we really have to be prepared.

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