The WWF’s anti-poaching campaign ads – striking a balance

In a time when  nations are competing for every small resource that falls within their borders, the world economy is sluggish at best and the lure of a capital fortune is seemingly greater than ever before, the World Wildlife Fund mission to prevent the further extinction of animals appears a tough one. In light of the above mentioned circumstances, how do you stop the seemingly relentless slaughter of a variety of endangered animal species?

Anti-poaching squads seem most vulnerable in the areas they are most needed. They are often underarmed, underfunded and pushed towards the lower-priority area of many governments’ agendas, particularly in poorer Third World nations. Yet the biggest monster seems the insatiable hunger for the artefacts, bones, tusks, skins, horns or meat of wild animals.

The idea has been mooted before, and the WWF has for sometime been trying to  target  the destinations of wildlife products. It’s well-known ad campaign has sought to do just this. Wisely, instead of employing the graphic imagery of elephant and animal slaughter available the internet to shock people into taking notice, the WWF has done a good job of contextualising the animal cost of the wild animal trade. They use images that anthropomorphise animals, giving them the characteristics of humans. Posters, such as the one below, link the animal coat to a live animal. This sends a message that conveys hope of the animal’s survival  rather than desolation of knowing it is already dead without being distasteful.

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Above: An innovative WWF anti-poaching campaign. (Picture courtesy of WWF)

Hardliners may ask how this campaign hopes gain attention. Why not a disturbing image of full-bodied pangolin in a bowl of soup (a delicacy in some Far Eastern cultures)? Or images of headless rhinos and elephants or bloodied tiger coats are so highly effective in shocking audiences that they are more likely to make individuals become vegetarian than take notice of the problem at hand.

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Above: Another TRAFFIC/WWF collaboration that does more to educate people about the nature of rhino poaching than shocking audiences. (Picture courtesy of WWF)

What proponents of this kind of awareness campaign disregard is that many people do not see animals in human terms. Violent images of dead rhinos seek to induce a feeling of guilt in every person who comes across the image, even if the person has never seen a rhino, bought a horn or even a seen illegal rhino horn dealing happen. Individuals rarely feel guilty for the death of an animal, even if they killed the animal. The violent images are translated into a accusation, which every human who feels they are being portrayed as “wrong” resents. Thus violent imagery has the opposite affect of it initial intentions: it pushes potential interested parities away. Additionally its effectiveness can be questioned because people are become very desensitised to violent imagery as a result of its accessible presence in everyday media.

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Above: Yoa Ming’s trip to Northern Kenya was a watershed moment in East-West cooperation in fighting the illegal trade of rhino and elephant products. (Picture courtesy of WildAid)

In contrast, the WWF ads try to connect humans to animals by showing how complicity in the wildlife trade results in an animal death. In China, the name for ivory translates as teeth, and logically many members of Chinese society who were unaware of the nature of the ivory trade assumed that whichever creature “grew the harvested” teeth would be able to grow them back. Such cultural misunderstandings emerged when the WWF and WildAid began using Chinese basketball player Yoa Ming to front their anti-poaching campaigns.

Ming’s visit to Kenya was an important step in reducing animosity many African conservationists feel towards China, who they see as the root of the their troubles. It will take more such innovative anti-poaching campaigns, at the same time reducing alarmist and unhelpful media coverage to assist endangered animals survival.

I’m almost extinct, do I deserve some attention now?

DSC_0614Ever heard of a pangolin? A scaly anteater perhaps? Or a creature whose ancestors have walked this Earth for 40 million years, one of the Earth’s earliest modern mammals?

Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.

National Geographic Footage of a pangolin

Follow the Spoor wildlife YouTube blog on pangolins

So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.

For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.

The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.

This pangolin's armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

This pangolin’s armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!

What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.

There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.

A female pangolin

A female pangolin

The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.

Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.

Am I not pretty enough to save?

Am I not pretty enough to save?

The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious,  choose to defend one and not the other  if the same injustices are being suffered by both.

Some of Africa’s most critically endangered animals are not getting enough media and conservation attention.

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Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock

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Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss

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Geometric tortoise – habitat loss

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Wild dogs (the painted dog) –  perceived threat to livestock.