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.


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.


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.


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.