A recent report by Damien Mander of the International Anti-poaching Foundation got me thinking about the rhino issue again. What makes this report different is that Mr Mander has attempted to understand the demand. His research is worth discussion.
To begin, I’d like to state that these thoughts relate to only one of the remedies that are being mooted, that is the sensitization of the target market. They do not, in any way, replace or sideline the sterling work of the judiciary, security and intelligence forces in combating the scourge of poaching in Africa. The solution to the poaching problem is multi-pronged – each effort requiring the support of others.
So who should the sensitization programme target? And how should this be done?
What Mr Mander learned in Vietnam is that the demand for rhino horn comes from two different sources.
First it is an ingredient in traditional medicine. Although the demand from this source has abated lately, due to the rise in price of rhino horn, there is some concern that if the price were to drop there would be a corresponding increase on the demand side.
Mr Mander spoke with a traditional healer and learned that balance is one of the cornerstones of the Asian belief system. In his words: “The task of a traditional medicine practitioner is to identify and correct disharmonies …” and Asians “… find our concerns about the preservation of wild animals curious and funny.”
Surely between these two seemingly opposite standpoints we could find common ground for agreement? For example: whereas Asians are concerned about the harmonies of cold/hot, interior/exterior and deficiency/excess couldn’t we impart our concern over the equilibrium of an ecosystem? Where they are worried about creating concord between a person, his environment and intakes, couldn’t we gain sympathy for our concern for how people fit into the greater scheme of things, for a balance between people and nature? The idea of balance already exists in the minds of Asians. We need to expand that awareness to the environment.
I see great potential in this approach which neither clashes with nor diminishes the other but rather looks for similarities between them. By identifying our affinities we can then move onto creating the understanding required for resolution.
Engaging with traditional healers through their associations will go a long way to sensitizing the Asian traditional medicine users. We know already that they are doing without rhino horn, presumably finding alternatives. Backing the impetus (caused by its costliness) with understanding will have a far greater effect than any finger-wagging tactic.
The second demand identified by Mr Mander is more superficial, amorphous, making it more difficult to pin down. Here some creative thinking is needed.
The ownership and display of whole rhino horns has become a status symbol amongst the Vietnamese elite. Why? I’m guessing it has to do with its price but there could well be other reasons. Mr Mander points out that there is already an industry dedicated to producing reproductions.
When I read this my mind immediately jumped to the fur trade as a comparison. Demonstrations and high profile activism, such a dye-throwing, have not had much impact on the demand – a market that is small due to the cost of the fur.
Confrontation, as an attitude-changer, rarely works. So what does?
The one thing that all humans crave is acceptance and respect. People will do anything, and I mean anything, to achieve this. This is what this ‘club’ of rhino-horn owners want. They want acceptance from those whom they admire.
The critical question then becomes whose respect do they seek? Is it the West, as in our culture of displaying one’s material wealth? Or is it a layer of Vietnamese society whose approval these people yearn?
The answer to this will determine the pivot of the campaign.
And the form of the campaign?
Ridicule. Or the lip-curl treatment.
Both are the antithesis of acceptance.
I remember reading about someone who infiltrated a Klu Klux Klan chapter in the U.S. Fear ran like an undercurrent through every sector of the small town and this individual was sick and tired of it. Once he learned the secret rituals and passwords used in the chapter what did he do? He fed the information to a radio scriptwriter who wove it into a Superman series. All the secret power of the Klu Klux Klan was undermined in a couple of comic hero episodes.
So depending on whose approval the rhino-horn owners seek (I suspect it’s Vietnamese high society) then that’s the platform from where disapproval should be launched. Get a few of these people on conservation’s side and you’ve got your cannons.
Cartoons. Snooty TV characters. They could all play their part in turning the tide.
Where confrontation is essential to combat poaching from a defensive stance it is not the language to use when trying to convince people to change their habits. Here a more subtle approach is required.
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