The WWF’s new campaign is sort of disheartening

The WWF recently launched a new anti-poaching campaign:


The campaign is obviously meant to discourage the illicit trade in endangered species, like the busts documented in the New York Times article that highlighted these ads:

In July, owners of two jewelry stores in Manhattan pleaded guilty to selling illegal ivory goods valued at more than $2 million. And in September, a father and son in Los Angeles pleaded guilty to the illegal trafficking of rhino horns from the United States to Asia, horns that were antiques, often removed from old, mounted trophies, which are not illegal unless they are transported across state lines or out of the country.

And therein lies the problem: the article managed to dig up two American busts since last July, one of which did not even implicate any recent poaching. Obviously, most black market activity ultimately goes unreported, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these ads (which will run in DC, New York, St. Louis, LA, and other American cities) are targeting the wrong audience.

But according to a different New York Times article from three weeks ago, the main driver of elephant poaching in Africa is in Asia:

The only effort that has ever proved effective was the bitterly won ivory ban implemented by CITES in 1990. Ivory prices instantly collapsed. Elephant populations slowly increased. The ban worked.

But it lasted only until 1999. That year, CITES allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time sale.” Then China wanted in. In a procedural sleight-of-hand, in 2008 the CITES secretariat let China bid on 102 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. (Another “one-time sale.”)

Immediately after China got its 2008 ivory pass, killing surged. In Kenya, for instance, fewer than 50 elephants were killed in 2007; this rocketed to about 250 in 2009 and just under 400 in 2012.

I understand that the campaign is probably intended to raise awareness in the United States, but it still strikes me as a waste. The New York Times article praised WWF for avoiding the use of violent imagery (i.e. dead, faceless elephants), but the alternative is a straw man: the vast majority of Americans don’t look at a rhino and think “medicine”.

What the ad campaign really needs is more Chinese — and I don’t mean people.

Until China changes its behavior, and the CITES ban is reinstated, poaching will continue apace. And if I’ve learned one thing from other international environmental negotiations, China will change its behavior when China is good and ready. No amount of American public opinion is going to help China get good and ready.

There is, of course, another possibility: that this is all meant as a fundraiser. I have no problem with that. I just wish that — as long as WWF was going to spend the money on advertising anyway — it hadn’t shied away from choosing a topic that might demand behavioral changes on the part of the people it ostensibly targeted, like climate change.

I guess it’s easier to open your checkbook than make any lifestyle changes. Donate now.


5 thoughts on “The WWF’s new campaign is sort of disheartening”

  1. Charismatic megafauna are the way WWF raises money. They “raise awareness” about cuddly critters rather than about problems that might matter but are harder to get people to care about. If you’re lucky, WWF will use these funds for goals that actually matter; if not, they’ll just churn an endless PR machine o’ineffectiveness (Nature Conservancy, I’m looking at you, cough). If you’re gonna be a radical environmentalist, get used to that dynamic.


  2. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that they get most of their advertising for free. Granted, the posters costs money to produce, but the locations are mostly free


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