Wildlife conservation is taking a turn in perspective. According to a recent article in Ensia, conservation efforts that are relevant to today’s world are going to depend much more on behavioral science – and behavior change. WildAid’s campaign against shark fin soup shows how.
The most prevalent American cultural (and even academic) idea of “sustainability,” while still rather squishy in the specifics, tends to be applied to behaviors and costs – do you recycle, how high is the gas mileage, what’s this or that product’s carbon footprint. Wildlife conservation, on the other hand, traditionally focuses more on animals and habitats in peril.
But what happens when these two approaches, popular sustainability and wildlife conservation, become better connected – linking the causal human behavior more closely to the “cost”?
Power to change
Here’s an example. Some World Wildlife Fund commercials are very intriguing, even jolting, like the “Imagine this is yours” ads, where a hunter aims his weapon at a child dressed as an animal. But they lack a practical application for most viewers, who likely aren’t the ones poaching for tiger cubs or sea turtles. Even if a parent connects emotionally with those ads, there’s no connection between the animal in focus and a specific behavior that needs to change – like buying goods made from a tiger’s pelt.
There’s another line of WWF ads featuring a tic-tac-toe board. Xs and Os are animals and products, like crocodiles and purses. Either one could fill in the last box. “It’s your turn,” the ad says.
Suddenly, the power to actually do something about the situation is in the consumers’ hands – stop buying the crocodile purses.
Making waves in conservation
The recent push against shark fin soup by nonprofit WildAid (and others) shows what can happen if conservation efforts are joined with behavior-targeted communications like we advocate using for sustainability and energy efficiency measures.
Shark fin soup has long been considered a delicacy and an indicator of social status in China, and despite the fact that the fin purportedly adds no flavor to the dish, up to 73 million sharks are stripped of their fins each year. What’s easier than arresting or fining all of the fishermen who catch all of those sharks? Take away their market.
So WildAid sponsored commercials that aim to take away the social status from the soup by making it something gross and just plain uncool. In one commercial, viewers watch people just like themselves eating the soup at an event – and then look up with the diners to see a bleeding shark struggling to breath in the aquarium beside the tables. Chinese basketball star Yao Ming reminds the diners and the viewers that “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
Targeting supply is the usual tactic for anti-poaching measures. But curbing demand, a proactive approach rather than reactive, can be more effective.
WildAid’s campaign, along with new governmental policies (including efforts in California and New York), are really making a difference. They’ve been credited with the amazing 50 percent decline in demand for shark fin over the past year reported by the Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association.
Of course, not every animal in need of conservation has such a direct connection to consumer goods and behaviors. But WildAid’s campaign is a strong reminder for us in the for-profit world that we’re on the right track for making a difference by attacking the demand-side of the equation for energy, packaging, etc. – by better tying the big issues directly to consumers’ lives.