Endangering Animals Is Hazardous to Your Health

What Wildlife Advocates Can Learn From Public Health Campaigns

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

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