Despite decades of international efforts in wildlife conservation, both the international community and countries worldwide continue to tackle the challenge of wildlife poaching. In 1979, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna (CITES) was established as a multilateral agreement dedicated to “…ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.”
Ten years later, CITES took up greater initiatives by approving a ban on ivory trade, marking a major, global step in attempting to eliminate ivory trade altogether. While elephant poaching rates reduced following the 1989 ban, it still persists today. In 2012, 7.2% of African elephants were poached, although their population rate was 5%.
The persistent poaching issue poses many questions. Although an international treaty dedicated to conserving wildlife is significant, how effective is CITES? Do member countries have the will and the capacity to enforce and regulate conservation laws? While these questions are important to delve into, I believe it is first important to question consumer demand for wildlife products. Why is there a consumer demand for wildlife parts and how can governments and other institutions reduce this demand?
Awareness campaigns, such as marketing and education are effective tools in reducing wildlife consumption. Celebrities, such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, have participated in awareness campaigns. Take the consumer behavior of shark fins, for example. According to a WildAid consumer survey, 65% of survey respondents in China accredited awareness campaigns to the reduction of shark fin consumption. However, these respondents were concentrated in the Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu areas. While these awareness campaigns seem to focus on consumers in urban areas, it is important to distribute awareness campaigns in non-urban and rural areas.
Multilateral organizations should contribute in spreading awareness campaigns with the focus on reducing wildlife consumption. This past May, specialized agencies within the United Nations launched a wildlife awareness campaign, called Your Actions Called – Be a Responsible Traveller, aimed at tourists and travelers, with the focus of reducing wildlife trafficking. While this campaign is recent, it is difficult to assess its effectiveness. Furthermore, the campaign has a narrow target group—global tourists and travelers. Tourists are only one of several factors that comprise the issue of wildlife trafficking and consumption.
Yury Fedotov, the director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime stated,
“Education and public awareness campaigns are needed to reduce the demand for protected fauna and flora, together with efforts to promote sustainable livelihoods for communities in source countries, where poverty and their lack of economic opportunities drive many to engage in this criminal enterprise.”
Mr. Fedotov is right. Multilateral organizations should partake in this. They should help spread awareness campaigns in rural areas, specifically in areas with high levels of wildlife consumption. Furthermore, it is also necessary to educate younger generations to curtail wildlife consumption in those regions in the long run.
However, what if education and public awareness campaigns are not sufficient tools in reducing wildlife consumption?
In urban Chinese cities, white-collar, university educated, and young adults are major wildlife consumers. However, 52.7% of the survey respondents do not agree with wildlife consumption. What about the remaining 47.3% of the survey respondents? This brings the question of whether education and awareness campaigns are effective in reducing wildlife consumption, especially within the narrower demographic of educated, white-collar respondents. Enforcement must play a large role in curtailing wildlife consumption.
Multilateral organizations have a limited role in enforcement; this role is left up to countries. Countries with high level of wildlife consumption should enforce CITES, given that they have resources for enforcement—this could entail enforcing wildlife trade bans and limitations through legislation. To have successful enforcement capabilities, intergovernmental organizations, such as INTERPOL, can assist countries in tracking hotspots and gathering intelligence for illicit wildlife trade.
China’s National Inter-Agency CITES Enforcement Collaboration Group (NICECG) successfully organized over 100,000 law enforcement officers to combat illicit wildlife trade —
“more than 700 cases of illegal wildlife trade were uncovered… 13 wildlife-related criminal networks were dismantled and approximately 130,000 wild animals, 2,000 wildlife products, and 147 wild animal skins were confiscated.”
There must be a combination of education, awareness campaigns, and law enforcement capabilities to curtail illicit wildlife trade and consumption. While China’s law enforcement capabilities are improving and expanding in combating illicit wildlife trade, they are still facing the obstacle of reducing consumption within the educated and white-collar demographics.
Countries with high levels of wildlife consumption cannot change their policies overnight, especially if some countries do not have strong law enforcement capabilities. In this case, education and awareness campaigns are critical in reducing wildlife consumption. Multilateral organizations should take a larger role in assisting countries lacking law enforcement capabilities, such as promoting wildlife education, spreading awareness campaigns, and gathering intelligence.
Lawson, Katherine and Alex Vines. “Illegal Impacts of the Wildlife Trade: The Costs of Crime, Insecurity and Institutional Erosion.” Chatham House, 2004. P. 4  Zhang, Li and Feng Yin. “Wildlife Consumption and Conservation Awareness in China: A Long Way to Go.” Springer Science+Business Media, 2014. P. 6  Lawson, Katherine and Alex Vines. “Illegal Impacts of the Wildlife Trade: The Costs of Crime, Insecurity and Institutional Erosion.” Chatham House, 2004. P. 11