Over the past decade, the worldwide elephant population has declined by over 30,000 per year due to reduced habitat, trophy hunting, and specifically poaching. Elephants are being slaughtered at an industrial scale for their ivory, with an estimated 415,000 left in the wild. At the current rate of population decline, the species could be extinct in the wild within the next 20 years.
GlobeScan’s Asia Pacific Director Wander Meijer spoke with Zhou Fei, Chief Programme Officer of WWF China and former Head of WWF China, and Gavin Edwards, who has been leading on WWFs high impact initiative on Ivory, about leadership at WWF and how this is leveraged via the Ivory High Impact Initiative, WWF’s strategy to save elephants and a range of other endangered species from extinction.
How has WWF evolved since its inception over 50 years ago?
Gavin: WWF is the largest environment conservation NGO in the world with a footprint in more than 60 countries. Probably the most interesting part of the WWF evolution is the thinking from very early on, “How do I protect a single species or a single piece of habitat for that species which is critically important”? The challenge is that you end up with a place-by-place, species-by-species challenge and you don’t necessarily tackle the systemic drivers that are driving wildlife to extinction. So, in the last decades we’ve seen a shift where we continue to do our species and habitat work, but we’re also investing more in understanding and intervening in the underlying drivers, whatever they may be.
Fei: WWF was the first international NGO to be invited by the Chinese Government to work on the panda habitat in the 1980s. The law in China stipulates that international organizations can only do fundraising from overseas, but now we have established a local foundation – the One Planet Foundation (OPF). WWF and OPF are strategic partners and we can raise funds from overseas, from the public, and from the corporate sector in China. We’ve got donor members like Vanke, the largest property company in China, and others like Tencent and Jingdong.
How does WWF’s High Impact Initiative on Ivory fit into this evolution?
Gavin: Recently, we reoriented the organization so that we work on six big thematic areas (forest, fresh water, oceans, food, climate and energy, and wildlife) and by focusing on just a few areas and the complexities of the issues underneath each area, we feel we’ll be able to get further in our mission and that the public will more easily understand what we’re doing. One example is our wildlife practice area and illegal wildlife trade, like trade in elephant tusks coming to Asia or rhino horns from Africa. So we designed this High Impact Initiative: how do we intervene within the broader sphere of wildlife trade? Is there a highly urgent place that we need to focus on and can it have a knock-on effect for all illegal wildlife trade? It aims to close down markets for elephant ivory, so it will be illegal to sell such products alongside a strong enforcement effort to make sure that it is backed up as well. Secondly, we need to engage consumers, identify exactly who the consumers of ivory are, and then encourage them to not buy these products in the future.
Fei: WWF/Traffic supports the Chinese Government implementation (per 31st December 2017) of the ivory ban in China. The Chinese ivory ban is regarded by the international community as a game changer that might help to reverse the decline of the elephant population in Africa. In this, we mainly work on three fields. One is to monitor the ivory market, both online and in physical shops. The other is to reduce the demand of ivory products in China by collaborating with corporates such as e-commerce companies and travel agencies. Then the third one is to launch social media and digital campaigns to raise public awareness.
We deliver workshops in Africa and we have so far covered 11 elephant range countries in collaboration with the Chinese embassies. In those workshops, we raised awareness of wildlife conservation among the Chinese nationals with a strong message: don’t purchase any ivory items anymore because there’s a ban in China and it is a huge risk if you try to purchase ivory items and bring them into China.
Gavin: China is a powerful and influential country, so who else might be inspired by China’s leadership? Since then we’ve seen Hong Kong put a ban in place to phase out its ivory trade by 2021, and Taiwan is phasing it out by 2020. Singapore and Myanmar are right now mulling the banning of ivory trade, and the UK is tightening up its regulatory environment as well. So we’re seeing this knock-on effect. A combination of those two – regulatory change and difficulty of access to ivory – should contribute to our ultimate goal, the reduction of poaching.
Is this a leadership position WWF is taking?
Gavin: I think in environment and conservation NGOs, there’s a feeling that there’s an awful lot going wrong with the world and we have to do an awful lot of everything to make it right. But of course, we have limited capacity and resources, and how to focus is an important leadership trait. People often say to me, “what about rhinos or pangolins? Do you not care about these species? All you ever talk about is elephants.” Of course, we care deeply about all species, we just think that by focusing on one it will drive others. So maybe another facet of leadership is understanding your strategy and then having the real conviction to execute your strategy, as well as knowing that it’s the right one.
What are your expectations for the Ivory High Impact Initiative in the coming years?
Fei: The ivory trade ban is a great sacrifice made by the Chinese Government to the conservation of elephants in Africa because ivory carving is an intangible part of China’s cultural heritage. So it takes time to change the mentality of the Chinese, to change their consumption behavior, but I’m quite confident that we will be able to achieve our goal by the year 2022.
There is a lot at stake because we cannot afford the failure of the Chinese ivory trade ban. If it does fail, we will have no chance to save the wild elephants. China alone cannot achieve this, it can only be effective with other countries also closing the markets that contribute to the illegal trade and poaching in Africa. My worst nightmare is that we succeed in China but that there are legal markets elsewhere where Chinese tourists can still buy ivory. So we cannot reduce demand for ivory and we won’t see a decline in the poaching.
How can WWF further leverage its leadership and be recognized by its stakeholders?
Gavin: The first thing we do in any strategic planning, once we know what we need to achieve, is to conduct a stakeholder mapping: how powerful or disempowered are those stakeholders and how agreeable or disagreeable they may be to the change that we’re advocating. By this exercise, it became clear that we have to engage and partner with the Chinese Government, the Vietnamese Government, the Hong Kong Government, etc. to drive this change. Next to that, in China, we work with large corporations like Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, and CTrip, the large online travel agent. These companies themselves are not facilitating wildlife trade, but their platforms may be used to sell products illegally and their platforms can also be a positive force to reach people directly.
Fei: The collaboration with these online companies started in 2012. We work on two fronts. One is to request them to delete their ivory advertisements and illegal sales on their websites and online shops. The other is that we collaborate with them to use their platform to raise their customers’ awareness of the ivory trade ban, the illegal ivory trade in China, and the poaching of elephants in Africa. Now we are planning to do a huge digital campaign on Tencent’s social media platforms WeChat and QQ to raise awareness of the Chinese ivory trade ban and to discourage consumers from purchasing ivory.
Gavin: I think that one of the real powers of an organization like WWF versus governments or companies in the private sector is that different people, some of whom we may have had strong disagreements with in the past, are willing to sit together and work through it. That is one of our niches and so whenever we can spot an opportunity to really make a difference we should take it.
Leadership is probably being two steps ahead of a lot of people in the world and figuring out what we need to achieve; what is stretch-possible, the ability to actually see those opportunities and then build from there, build a strategy, and involve stakeholders. To me that is probably one of the most difficult leadership challenges that any leader will face: to have that insight well ahead of time. I feel that the High Impact Initiative that we have on ivory does just that. It’s a topic whose time has come: the decimation of African elephant populations. It’s taking it from moral outrage to a practical strategy and outcome. I can see that we’ve got a pretty good chance of success if we scale it correctly, if we do things right. This is probably one of the most important leadership traits – having the prescience to see an issue before others see it and then driving a strategy so you can actually win as well.
Featured photo credit: © WWF-US/Colby Loucks