In the 1970S and 1980s Africa’s elephants were being slaughtered to satisfy demand for ivory in Asia, above all Japan. A two-pronged attack was launched to deal with the problem. On the supply side, the ivory trade was banned in 1989 through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. On the demand side, Traffic, an NGO dedicated to fighting trade in endangered species, mounted a campaign to reduce demand. The combined approach worked. There are no precise numbers, but the African elephant population is thought to have increased from 300,000-600,000 in 1995 to 470,000-690,000 in 2007.
In recent years, though, demand from China has led to a resumption of the slaughter. Campaigners say that elephants are dying at a faster rate than at any time since the 1980s. Supply-side intervention is proving difficult. Kenya has recently established an anti-poaching unit and increased the penalties for poaching, but outside southern Africa governments are too poor and too fragile to counter the pull of Chinese demand. The $10m that Barack Obama recently committed to the fight against poaching is unlikely to make much difference. Some campaigners are therefore trying to emulate the earlier demand-reduction campaign.
Back in the mid-1980s Japan was importing 500 tonnes of ivory a year, about 50,000 elephants-worth. Two Japanese traditions kept demand buoyant: the ivory name-seals used to finalise business deals, and the preference for precious stones or ivory for the best netsuke, or kimono toggles. Traffic worked on the newspapers and helped persuade them to write anti-ivory editorials. But the big breakthrough, according to Traffic’s Tom Milliken, came when Britain’s Prince Philip gave a rousing speech at an event organised by the World Wildlife Fund, which encouraged Japan’s crown prince to speak out. “It was the first time that Japanese royalty had taken a stance on a wildlife issue. It was an amazing moment,” says Mr Milliken. Ivory became uncool. He reckons Japanese imports are down to 5-10 tonnes a year.
WildAid, an NGO, is now trying to pull the same trick in China. It recently launched a campaign on television and video billboards and in taxis featuring the Chinese equivalent of Japanese royals: celebrities. The slogan goes: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” Yao Ming, a basketball player who is one of the stars featured (pictured), has been to Africa to make documentaries on elephant and rhino which WildAid hopes will be screened next year. A campaign he headed to discourage people from eating shark fin augurs well: demand is said to be down by half, and the government recently announced a ban on shark fin at official banquets.
Hearts and minds, The Economist, September 14th 2013