Conservation officials gather elephant tusks to be destroyed as part of a campaign against poaching in Bangkok, Thailand, August 2015
Conservation officials gather elephant tusks to be destroyed as part of a campaign against poaching in Bangkok, Thailand, August 2015
Chaiwat Subprasom / REUTERS

In recent years, the illicit wildlife trade has expanded to unmatched proportions. The traffic in animal parts gravely threatens global biodiversity and entire ecosystems. Those who partake in it do so to meet the demand for wildlife products used in everything from foods and medications to clothing and decorations. Reducing the demand for these products is crucial to stopping the poaching and trafficking of animals. Such strategies will feature prominently at this week’s London summit, where conservationists and public officials will convene to address an increasingly urgent problem.

Campaigns to reduce demand for wildlife products often miss the mark, however. They rely heavily on altruistic messaging, which has been shown to have little influence on people’s behavior—say, posters of baby elephants with messages discouraging ivory use. Television ads featuring local celebrities condemning wildlife consumption do better but are insufficient. Wildlife advocates should look to public health campaigns for models that have effectively changed public behavior. In particular, campaigns to reduce smoking and drug use have been successful when they’ve warned consumers about immediate, short-term risks to their health, survival, prestige, or prospects for sex. Wildlife advocates should do likewise, highlighting how consuming certain wildlife products can harm the individual consumer, not just the species or the environment.  


Elephants, rhinos, and tigers have become the emblems of the illicit wildlife trade, but in fact tens of thousands of species are at risk. Some, such as sharks and turtles, are illegally hunted and traded by the millions each year. Together with global warming and habitat destruction, the illegal wildlife trade contributes to a species extinction rate that is now up to 1,000 times the historic average. Wildlife trafficking can trigger global pandemics, including devastating varieties of influenza, and has been linked to the spread of SARS and the Ebola virus. The illicit trade in animal products hurts economies, threatens the security of nations, and has permanently damaged forest-dependent communities.  

The demand driving this problem is complex. Some animal species are traded as pets; products derived from wildlife are used in luxury foods, protein supplements, medications, clothing, decorations, rituals, and aphrodisiacal elixirs popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The global rise of the middle class has contributed to a spike in demand for illegally or unsustainably sourced wildlife products, particularly in East Asia and among East Asian diasporic communities. Demand has also expanded in Africa and in Latin America, where it often goes unnoticed because of the unique difficulties of monitoring illegal offtake from tropical forests. Research shows that reducing the demand for wildlife products is the single most effective way to stabilize and protect wildlife populations. But changing consumer behavior is not as simple as persuading potential buyers that their choices can do harm.

The global rise of the middle class has contributed to a spike in demand for illegally or unsustainably sourced wildlife products.

Campaigns that warn consumers of long-term, diffuse, public drawbacks to their behavior are well proven to be ineffective. The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush tried to discourage drug use by pointing to links between drug trafficking and terrorist financing, but the campaign was unpersuasive. Demand did not budge. The United Kingdom is currently trying to discourage cocaine use by linking it to deforestation in Colombia. Although conclusive evaluations of the campaign’s effectiveness are not available yet, historical evidence suggests that there are good reasons to be skeptical. 

Messaging that calls attention to short-term, personal risk, however, tends to be more effective.  Even teenagers have been effectively deterred from smoking cigarettes when exposed to campaigns that highlight personal health risks. Antismoking campaigns in which children confront their parents about the health risks of secondhand smoke have also been effective. Graphic representations on cigarette packages showing the damage smoking can do have been among the most successful deterrent strategies, particularly when they are accompanied by  higher cigarette prices, restricted tobacco advertising, and bans on smoking in public places. 

Similarly, some of the most successful environmental protection campaigns—against ozone depletion, acid rain, and pesticides—emphasized links to cancer, birth defects, and other life-threatening or debilitating diseases. A successful campaign to reduce shark-fin soup consumption in Hong Kong and China stressed the fact that shark fins are loaded with mercury and cadmium, both of which can cause cancer and birth defects. Increased awareness in China of these dangers seems to have simultaneously helped reduce the demand for manta ray gills, which also contain mercury and cadmium, and to have galvanized support for a campaign to outlaw them entirely.

When luxury or social prestige factors into the appeal of a wildlife product, celebrities and political leaders can help discourage consumption. In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping prohibited serving shark-fin soup at official functions as part of a campaign to combat corruption, extravagance, and opulence among party officials. The move may have been designed to consolidate Xi’s power, but it had the effect of damaging the prestige of the product and driving down demand.  

In some cultures, particularly in Asia, certain wildlife products are believed to have medicinal properties such as increasing sexual potency or preventing cancer. Most of these claims are bogus: the keratin in rhino horn no more cures cancer than consuming a tiger’s penis enhances sexual performance. But that doesn’t stop people from taking such notions seriously or traders from actively promoting them. Using scientific evidence to debunk myths surrounding certain animal products has so far not been enough to dissuade consumers. But advocates could try to disassociate these products from health or good sex by associating them with the opposite: for example, advertisements could feature attractive men or women rejecting suitors who use wildlife products, establishing a social stigma linked to sex. 

One obvious way to reduce demand is to enforce the laws that prohibit illicit wildlife trade. Such enforcement can be difficult because so much of the trade takes place through private exchanges on social media and other online platforms. Ivory is now prohibited in China, where traffickers and large-scale retailers should be punished with stiff prison penalties. When law enforcement officials are able to overcome the barriers to identifying them, even small-scale buyers should be subject to mild but embarrassing punishments, such as a week of cleaning public toilets. 


None of these measures can be effective if consumers believe that the outlawed products are indispensable. For this reason, prevention requires that we study and understand the demand for particular products. Providing poor, forest-dependent populations with sustainable alternatives to wildlife meat might be far more effective in reducing demand than prohibiting and punishing poaching. And if environmentalists want to stop people from buying rhino horns to cure cancer, they should partner with public health advocates to connect those consumers to effective resources for cancer prevention and treatment.  

Prevention requires that we study and understand the demand for particular products.

Some consumers can be persuaded to substitute less harmful products. In Yemen, where rhino-horn daggers known as jambiyas are particularly prized, the demand has sharply decreased, not only because of the war, which reduced disposable income and led to a rash of jambiya theft, but because artificial jambiyas made of Chinese gum entered the market. In the 1990s, efforts to encourage Asian consumers to switch from rhino horn to the horn of the saiga antelope were similarly effective, but with catastrophic consequences for the antelope, whose population numbers remain dangerously low.

Policies that redirect consumers to substitute products carry a host of other risks. Licensed products can be used to launder illegally harvested ones or to “greenwash” the consumer conscience (using eco-friendly messaging to sell products that may or may not actually be safer). Consumers have no way of knowing how meaningful labels are that identify products as sustainably produced. Some industries pay for their own sustainability inspectors. But in the best cases, developing alternatives to illegal products can help protect the livelihoods of poor communities that live in proximity to wildlife and whose involvement in conservation efforts is critical to their success. 


When advocates succeed in reducing the demand for harmful products, vested interests can be expected to push back. In 2017, a Chinese doctor raised concerns online about a popular tonic liquor made out of animals and plants. The doctor claimed that it was not only ineffective but potentially poisonous. The tonic industry had him arrested for libel, which carried a sentence of several years (he was released after three months in response to popular pressure). More often, traders will seek new markets and invent new products to counteract successful demand-reduction campaigns. Chinese traders are already advertising the tusk of the hornbill, an iconic Asian bird, as a poor man’s alternative to the rhino horn. 

Consumers, too, will backslide, as they have after successful antismoking and safe sex campaigns in the United States. The apparent progress in reducing shark-fin soup consumption proved to be short-lived and not as robust as had been hoped. Large numbers of shark fins from protected species continue to flow into Hong Kong in a trade that kills millions of sharks annually and devastates ocean ecosystems. A surprising 98 percent of the restaurants in Hong Kong—one of the most environmentally aware places in East Asia—still serve shark-fin soup on the Chinese New Year. 

The effort to reduce the consumption of illicit wildlife will have to be as subtle as it is insistent, paying careful attention to who uses what products and why, and to how traders adapt to changes in public behavior.  Consumers should be made to understand the immediate risks the products can pose to them. Such risks can be increased by the enforcement of the law. And they can be avoided by purchasing licensed products backed by a rigorous, independent inspection process. Advocates can help communities locate alternative sources of protein or medicine. Consumers’ motivation and diligence can fade, even while traders and vested interests step up their game. The work of advocates is to remain alert, with continual efforts that evolve to meet the changing demand.

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  • VANDA FELBAB-BROWN is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Oxford University Press, 2017). 
  • More By Vanda Felbab-Brown