Research to the Rescue: Saving Elephants from Extinction

Research to the Rescue: Saving Elephants from Extinction
China’s basketball hero Yao Ming viewing the carcass of a poached elephant in Namunyak, northern Kenya (2015)

Two forces are battling for the fate of the elephant, the last of the large land mammals, as witnessed in this National Geographic video. Apart from survival of the species, there is a lot of money at stake. Wildlife crime has an estimated value of USD 23 billion per annum, the fourth-most lucrative criminal trade globally after drugs, humans and arms. The ivory trade is big business.
In Africa, criminal syndicates are poaching elephants at an industrial scale, killing more than 20,000 animals per year. With fewer than 500,000 elephants remaining in the wild, and combined with habitat loss, elephants could be extinct within decades.
At the same time, numerous NGOs and foundations are fighting to protect elephants, and there is also a lot of money involved in this effort: these organizations have an annual budget of over USD 1 billion per year, of which more than $100 million is spent in Africa.
Research to the Rescue: Saving Elephants from Extinction
Africa is the battle ground for species protection: in the past ten years, more than 1,000 park rangers have been killed in their fight against poachers. In February 2018, one of the most well-known conservationists, whose work would be instrumental in the move to shut down the domestic trade of ivory in China, Esmond Bradley Martin, was found murdered in his home in Kenya.
Making the trade of ivory illegal in mainland China has been a huge success in the battle against elephant poaching, where ivory has long been viewed as a prized, luxury item. And while an increasing number of enlightened Chinese consumers now reject ivory, with a rapidly growing middle class of more than 400 million people, there is also a larger number who can afford to buy ivory and who do so when traveling abroad.
And while the ban can legally prohibit trade, changing behavior and reducing demand is also essential. While several NGOs are conducting campaigns to convince Chinese consumers to stop buying ivory, to do so effectively, consumer research helps to uncover the drivers of the purchase of ivory, and most importantly, what messages are likely to be the most effective in reducing demand.
In 2017, WWF commissioned GlobeScan to conduct the largest-ever consumer study on ivory in the Chinese market. Covering 15 major cities in China, the research has shown that the important motivators of ivory purchase are its “artistic value” and “its uniqueness and heritage,” followed by “gifting.” Other drivers are “its beautiful appearance,” “rareness” and “being a precious material with high investment value.” Amongst the deterrents for purchasing ivory, “environmental issues” are mentioned most often, followed by a “regulatory/legal approach”: legislation with strong penalties is considered an effective way to stop people from buying ivory.
Research to the Rescue: Saving Elephants from Extinction

Billboard with Yao Ming in Beijing’s international airport (2018)

The survey results have been workshopped by representatives from the Chinese government, Chinese corporations (specifically Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent, the ‘BAT Alliance’ combatting the ivory trade using the internet) and local and international NGOs in January 2018 in Beijing.
The recommendations of the study and workshop are used to guide the demand reduction campaigns, of which the most important are:

  • Prioritize communications explaining the ivory ban
  • Educate consumers on animal cruelty and why elephants are endangered via factual and impactful messages
  • Change the way that ivory is perceived, from a “luxury” and unique product to an outdated and socially irresponsible item

A coalition of NGOs has then launched campaigns that specifically target overseas travelers and consumers in provincial cities, which were until now not often included in the demand reduction campaigns, as the focus was the metropolitan cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The combination of the legal ban on ivory trade and targeted campaigns to deter consumers from purchasing ivory should result in a reduction of desire and demand for ivory in China. On World Elephant Day, 12 August 2018, a follow-up survey on the first effects of the ban and the associated campaigns will be presented and will track whether the elephants are winning the battle.
Wander Meijer is Director Asia Pacific at GlobeScan and will be presenting updated study results with WWF at the ESOMAR congress in Bangkok on May 14.