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The meeting, sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development "ARREST" Program (Asia's Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking), involved conservation groups from Asia as well as media and advertising agencies. It sought to develop better approaches for combatting the illegal wildlife trade, which is dominated by consumers in Asia. As part of the effort, groups shared the results of recent surveys conducted across 15 cities in Asia. The results were surprising.
"The average consumer of these 'keynote' species in China, for example, is a wealthy urban male between the ages of 25-45, not a rural traditional family head," said a statement released by the FREELAND Foundation. "In Vietnam, surveys indicate that rhino horn is not being purchased as a cure for cancer, as has been reported repeatedly in the media."
"In both countries, there is a trend toward buying high value species and their derivatives as "collectibles" that also serve as investments. Consumer profiles indicate that the quest for prestige and higher status is driving much of the current slaughter of elephants, tigers, pangolins, bears, and rhinos."
The surveys also confirmed little government interest in enforcing laws against wildlife trafficking. Environmental agencies are typically small and under-funded.
The findings suggest a path for tackling demand: reducing the glamor of wildlife products. Recruiting "opinion leaders" like celebrities and sports stars to speak out against rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger bone consumption could help dissuade potential buyers while encouraging governments to take more active interest in wildlife trafficking issues. Already several groups, including Education Nature for Vietnam, Conservation International-China, IFAW-China, WildAid-China, FREELAND-Thailand and India, Wildlife Alliance-Cambodia, and TRAFFIC are using this approach in the region. For example ex-NBA basketball player Yao Ming recently did a tour of East Africa to highlight the plight of elephants. WildAid promoted his blog and photos back in China to showcase the impacts of ivory consumption on Africa's wild elephant populations.
"While in Namunyak, Northern Kenya, I come across a sight I will not soon forget…" Ming writes on his blog of encountering the carcass of an elephant slaughtered for its tusks. "Since 2008, elephant poaching has been on the rise, according to Save the Elephants and the Kenya Wildlife Service. I'm told the main destination for illegal ivory is China."
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