Illegal animal trafficking and poaching are a worldwide scourge, affecting (and creating) critically endangered species. It is also a problem that non-profit organisation TRAFFIC is working to curb, as its global communications co-ordinator Richard Thomas explains
For time immemorial humankind has been killing animals in the name of profit and beliefs – elephants for ivory, rhinos for their horn, sharks for their fins, the list goes on. International wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC is one of the key entities working to combat the illegal animal trade, as well as protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.
Traffic works closely with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), as well as CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity), and works across diverse species, including sharks and rays, rhinos, tigers, elephants and the ivory trade as well as ensuring the timber trade uses sustainable wood.
Here, Baku speaks to Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC’s global communications co-ordinator on the Saiga Antelope, a critically endangered species native to the Caucasus, as well as the work TRAFFIC is doing trying to change attitudes and curb poaching and trafficking at the source, as well as how the public can get involved.
Baku: Trying to stem illegal animal trade is a big job. Where does one even begin?
Richard Thomas: Indeed, one of our key areas of work is on social behaviour change communications. In essence, this means working to change peoples’ attitudes towards the use of particular illegal wildlife products and ultimately reduce the demand for them. Our most developed work in this area is through the Chi initiative in Vietnam, where, in a nutshell, we’ve talked to rhino horn users to try and understand their motivations for consumption. Once we know this, we can seek to build up a typical profile, and use it to identify what messages these consumers will respond to, and, critically, how best to deliver those messages and by whom.
What have been some of the most successful moments in your campaign to protect the Saiga Antelope?
I think one of the key steps forward was in 2010, when representatives from range States agreed measures to help protect Saiga Antelopes. TRAFFIC compiled a key document on the levels of Saiga horn trade which was presented at that meeting and helped inform the decision-makers present.
Have you seen Saigas in the wild?
Not yet, but it’s my ambition to visit the remote Asian steppe habitat where Saigas roam in the hope of seeing one in the wild one day.
Little known fact about the Saiga?
They occurred in Europe (Romania and Moldova) until the end of the 18th Century. They can also eat some plant species that are poisonous to other animals.
What about other activities within TRAFFIC’s Central Asian mammals Initiative?
I think TRAFFIC made a significant contribution towards wildlife protection in the Central Asia region through raising key wildlife trade issues in the context of the Eurasian Customs Union/Eurasian Economic Union (including Belarus, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan and Russia). More information here:
Any projects in Azerbaijan?
Our work relating to Azerbaijan has mainly been in connection with the caviar trade. In particular we’ve collated and provided information on it to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the main intergovernmental agreement through which wildlife trade is regulated.
The issue of wildlife trade is now high on the political agenda, with recent UN resolutions and a statement from the G20 on addressing the corruption associated with wildlife trafficking. However, such high profile work is all on the illegal and negative aspects of wildlife trade. Although this is an area we work on, TRAFFIC is very keen to be seen as a champion for legal and sustainable wildlife trade, that can bring benefits to those engaged in it and conservation gains.
And how are you doing that?
We have a programme engaged with promoting legal, sustainable sourcing within the timber industry, while we are also a partner in the FairWild Foundation, which promotes the uptake of the FairWild Standard for sustainable sourcing of wild medicinal and aromatic plants.
We didn’t know timber was also illegally traded!
Not many people are aware that many of the plant ingredients in certain foods (such as herbal teas) and some cosmetics and medicines are harvested from the wild. Look out for the FairWild logo on packs of herbal tea next time you are in the supermarket: you can be confident the wild plant ingredient has been sustainably harvested and the harvesters have received a fair and premium price for their product.
How can we help?
Of course we’re always grateful for, and hugely appreciative of, donations, but the best way people can help make a difference is in their everyday lives. Never buy any wildlife product – whether it’s a souvenir on holiday or a new pet – unless you’re sure it’s been legally sourced; look out for and buy products with FairWild certified ingredients, or with assurances of sustainable sourcing. Markets react to consumer pressure and if consumers demand sustainable products, the industry supplying them will follow.
Images courtesy of TRAFFIC