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By Chere Di Boscio
Animals aren’t having an easy time of it. In fact, it’s arguably the worst time in history for wild animals – their habitats are being destroyed; they’re being eaten for food, used for traditional ‘medicine’ and hunted as trophies to the point where many animals that were once common are on the brink of extinction.
So thank goodness for the likes of Peter Knights.
The WildAid co-founder and CEO got his start as a wildlife trafficking investigator and campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, raising awareness of the trade in wild birds for pets, as well as fighting against the consumption of endangered species in traditional Chinese medicine, such as bear gallbladder, rhino horn, and tiger parts. As a result of his work, over 150 airlines ceased carrying wild birds and American imports of wild birds dropped from 800,000 to just 40,000.
Aware of the cultural differences in Asia, Knights knew he’d have to get creative to make a big impact. His anti-poaching slogan: ‘When the buying stops, the killing can, too’ has been spread throughout international airports and by top celebrities, including WildAid ambassadors Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, Prince William, David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio and many others.
As that slogan suggests, Knights believes that to end animal poaching, we first have to end demand for animal products. In China in particular, pleas from local celebrities has led to serious results – WildAid’s shark campaign led by gigantic former basketball star Yao Ming has contributed to a 50-70% decline in consumption of shark fin in China, and an 81% decline in shark fin imports over three years.
Peter’s other campaigns for WildAid have resulted in other huge successes, such as the banning of ivory sales in China, a more than 60% decline in the price of ivory, and a more than 50% decline in the price of rhino horn in China and Vietnam.
To take his messages further, he created, produced and was featured in the Emmy-nominated documentary “Saving Africa’s Giants with Yao Ming,” and is now producing and co-directing a series of animal documentaries for the Chinese and Vietnamese TV.
I was delighted to be able to interview this animal champion about CITES, cultural attitudes, and how each one of us can help.
What first got you interested in working with the Environmental Investigation Agency?
I was shocked that half of Africa’s elephants had been poached in 15 years and no one knew about it and I was impressed by the methodology of using undercover techniques to expose wildlife crime.
Given it’s a practice so embedded in Asian customs, what do you think the best approach is to stop people from harvesting animal parts for medicine?
Education is key to persuading people not to consume wildlife parts. People need to understand the alternatives in traditional and Western medicine as well as that their consumption is driving the poaching and endangerment of these animals.
What’s the biggest threat facing our wildlife today, in your opinion?
The most imminent threat for many species is poaching, but the longer term threat is loss of habitat to human population growth and agricultural expansion.
CITES seems rather toothless to stop poaching. Has there been a proposal for any tougher legislation to take its place?
Actually CITES is way more binding than most international agreements and its enforcement has got a lot better around the world, but it’s up to individual countries to police it and to decide what penalties they apply. Usually the more serious the penalties, the better the enforcement.
Besides celebrity campaigns, what other current demand reduction strategies are in place for ivory?
Laws in China and Vietnam will basically ban sales of ivory by the end of this year and that will help tremendously. Education is happening through the schools and mass media, being led by well-known icons helps to popularize these campaigns.
Most vegans today shun palm oil, citing it as promoting cruelty to animals by destroying habitats. What does WildAid do to protect animals from corporate practices that destroy habitats?
We have focused on wildlife trade rather than habitat loss, but would certainly like to see palm oil demand plummet as it contributes to deforestation around the world.
What would you recommend the average person could do if they see, say, some ivory being sold in a shop or shark fin soup on a menu?
Obviously don’t buy it, but also communicate in a constructive way to anyone you know who might consider buying it on why they shouldn’t. Social pressure is key in reducing demand for these products.
WildAid also works to protect the oceans. What can the average person do to help?
- Contact environmental authorities if you spot illegal activities in marine reserves.
- Stay away from products made from marine species, such as coral, turtle shells, and shark fins.
- Always opt for environmental and sustainable alternatives and substitutes (like reusable water bottles, bags and straws).
- Contact your elected officials asking them what steps they are taking to protect our oceans and marine wildlife.
- Opt for ocean-friendly seafood that comes from sustainable sources. Seafood Watch provides a great app for finding local sustainable seafood.