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  • 1st Sep 2022

Saving the elephants with behavioural insights

Valued at approx £15 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade is the 4th biggest international illegal activity after drugs, illegal arms dealing, and human trafficking. It is a pressing global issue that threatens the existence of species high in cultural and ecological value, finances organised crime, and contributes to the instability of economies. Many wildlife species are victims of this trade, including elephants, pangolins, turtles, and tigers.

Influencing consumer demand is core in tackling illegal wildlife trade. However, there are gaps in existing literature about what works to reduce consumer motivation and demand. Leveraging on our experience in conservation, BIT is collaborating with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) China and Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU) to apply behavioural insights to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade in Asia. 

Identifying consumer motivations for elephant skin

Asian elephants are poached illegally in Myanmar for their skin to be used in Traditional Medicine (TM) products as cures for stomach-ache and other ailments. In partnership with WCS and SYSU, we sought to better understand what motivates Asian elephant skin consumption in Yunnan, China, bordering Myanmar, and identify ways to reduce consumption when it comes to Asian elephant skin products. This will help to reinforce existing enforcement efforts to combat and reduce illegal international trafficking of elephant parts – with TM use potentially increasing following the post-COVID reopening of the international borders.

From our exploratory work, we found that conservation awareness was not necessarily the issue. In fact, many TM consumers in China were likely aware that Asian elephant skin products came from a threatened species. Instead, what came up consistently was that people seeking traditional medicines are heavily influenced by those around them – for example, family elders who might have consumed Asian elephant skin many years ago.

Designing a lab-in-field experiment

With this insight in mind, we decided to run a lab-in-field experiment with over 1,600 residents in border towns of Yunnan to find out if behaviourally informed communications could influence people’s intention to purchase or consume Asian elephant skin TM products. 

Specifically, we sought to test two different messages and paired these messages with a suitable messenger, either a police officer or doctor delivering the message. This was done by developing two educational comics (see below). We picked the comic format as we found from our pre-trial pilot that this format was familiar and accessible to our target audience.

Comic 1: Enforcement message

Panel Translation of text
1 Hi cousin, my old illness has returned…
2 (L) It should be fine if I just try a little, right?

(R) It should be fine…

3 (L) I implicated not only myself but my cousin too.

(R) Buying even a little bit is a criminal offence!

4 (L) Buying elephant skin is a suspected offence! We are cracking down harshly on the purchasing of elephant skin products.

(R) Please go to the hospital or pharmacy and follow advice given by a doctor to buy legal medicine.

In the first comic (enforcement message), we emphasised the illegality of Asian elephant skin TM products and highlighted the legal consequences of purchasing or consuming these products. Legal pharmacies and hospitals were also promoted as alternatives for obtaining licensed medicine to alleviate stomach diseases.

Comic 2: Safety and hygiene message

Panel Translation of text
1 (L) Hi Doctor, my old illness has returned.

(R) Here, I’ll give you some medicine.

2 Can I also buy some other medicines on my own for regular use?
3 That’s risky! You may buy medicines that are unsafe and unsanitary, such as illegally sourced elephant skin.
4 (L) Elephant skin pieces may be derived from poisoned elephants. Illegal TM products are unsafe and unsanitary.

(R) Please go to the hospital or pharmacy and follow advice given by a doctor to buy safe and correct medicine.

In the second comic (safety and hygiene message), we highlighted how unsafe Asian elephant skin TM can be as there is a risk of them being poisonous. Likewise, information about alternatives in the form of legal pharmacies and hospitals were presented as well.

What we found

Participants who were shown the comic with the Enforcement message were significantly less likely to report an intention to seek out Asian elephant skin TM products for a family member with a chronic stomach ailment, as compared to the Control group that received no information.

In addition, those who were shown the Enforcement message were also significantly less likely to perceive Asian elephant skin as a cure for stomach disease compared to the Control group. 

Participants with greater prior exposure to Asian elephant skin and who also had a history of stomach disease are part of a high risk group that is the most likely to perceive elephant skin products as a cure for stomach diseases. They are also the most likely to purchase Asian elephant skin, which makes them an important target group for demand reduction efforts. Fortunately, our findings suggest that the Enforcement message was especially effective among this group of participants.

Testing and scaling what works

Our trial results suggest that messaging which is carefully developed based on identifying specific consumer motivations can be effective at reducing demand for wildlife products. We would recommend policy-makers and wildlife conservation groups looking to reduce consumption of similar wildlife products to tailor messaging specifically for each case, ideally based on a well-researched understanding of who the target group is and their accompanying motivations.

As always, BIT recommends for similar interventions to be rigorously piloted and tested before full roll-out. Piloting before the trial was important for this project, as it allowed us to check for any backfire effects. We were concerned if people with no prior knowledge or exposure to elephant skin would become more likely to purchase or consume it after seeing the comic, and the opportunity to pilot the intervention assured us that this was not the case.

We are particularly interested in testing new ways to move the needle on illegal wildlife trade, and customising promising interventions for local contexts. If you have questions or would like to partner with us, we would love to hear from you. Email Alexander Clark to get in touch. 

This project was led by a couple of BIT alumni who deserve a special mention here: Zac Posada-Baynham and Joceline Yong.


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