Ivory up in flames, but who really noticed? How messages on elephant poaching might be missed


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The world’s biggest burn of illegal ivory.
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The tusks of more than ten thousand elephants went up in flames in Kenya on April 30, 2016 – the world’s largest ever ivory burn. It was meant as a powerful display against poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

But did those flames reach their intended target?

Currently, governments, donors and NGOs aren’t monitoring the impact of these ivory burns. So we tracked the media coverage of the Kenyan burn, with the results published this month in Conservation Biology.




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Who got the message?

We had a simple question in mind with this research: did news of this burn make its way to ivory consumers and elephant poachers, and if so was the message one that denounced poaching?

The answer is a bit nuanced. Certainly the news of the ivory burn was strong (loud and clear) locally in Kenya and Tanzania and heavily amplified by news outlets across the western world (81% of online articles on the burn were produced in the United States).

Filming the destruction of the ivory.
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

Unfortunately, we found low coverage of the burn in China, Vietnam and other countries where demand for illegal ivory is highest.

Of the 1,944 online articles that covered the burn in the countries sampled, only 61 where produced in mainland china. Additionally, more than half of the coverage in China was in English language publications, which may not reach or resonate with all key ivory consumers.

The good news is, media stories around the ivory burn delivered an anti-poaching message. They stressed the importance of burns, ivory trade bans and law enforcement to catch poachers, smugglers and dealers, as key steps to saving elephants.

To burn or not to burn?

The authors on our research paper are a group of scientists and conservationists with diverse backgrounds, across Africa, North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Our values are as diverse as our experiences.

Most of us feel a bit of sadness because watching elephant tusks engulfed in flames is a reminder of elephant slaughter.

For some of us though, the sadness is tempered by feelings of hope and justice – this is ivory that will never go into the hands of illegal dealers and ivory consumers and, as such, acts as a major deterrent.

But for others, the response was upsetting – animals had been murdered, and to add insult to injury, their remains wasted.

In the Kenyan burn, the ivory was estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (A$128 million) on the black market.

These stockpiles of ivory are an unfortunate reality. Ivory is harvested by elephant poachers. Between 2007 and 2014 an estimated 144,000 elephants were killed. If we are lucky, these poachers are caught and their ivory confiscated. Piles of seized ivory accumulate in massive stockpiles across Africa.

So this poses a difficult situation. What should we do with all that ivory?

The haul of illegal ivory, before the burn. Could it be put to better use?
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

We’d all, obviously, rather see ivory where it belongs, on live elephants. In an ideal world ivory would only be collected, if at all, from elephants that died from natural causes and so trade in this product would not be a problem.

But the world isn’t ideal. Even though the price of ivory has declined, elephant tusks have been known to fetch up to US$10,000 (A$12,800). With the financial incentive to poach so high, it sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem.

Ivory for conservation

Some of us believe that destroying ivory sends a strong message against poaching and illegal ivory trade – by saying that ivory is only valuable on a living elephant.

These members of our group think that we might as well burn these stockpiles, to demonstrate that trade should never be supported (as it cannot be adequately policed). They are heartened by the adoption of ivory trade bans by China and the United States.

But others in the group think destroying a quantity of ivory – worth far more on the black market than Kenya’s entire annual wildlife management budget – squanders an opportunity to sell the ivory.

The money could then be used to conserve elephants and other endangered wildlife (although pro-trade proponents acknowledge that there are implementation issues regarding corruption and policing efficacy).

To these members of our group, burning the ivory would be like burning cash in front of a person with no food or shelter.

Deep down inside, we all have one common goal, to save elephants.

Illegal ivory could be used to aid elephant conservation.
Flickr/The Rohit, CC BY-NC

Rather than arguing based on our emotions, that’s why we carried out the latest research – a first step towards helping us decide whether ivory burns will reduce poaching.




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With the most recent ivory destruction event, in Melbourne, Australia, now is the time to think deeply about the efficacy of these ivory destruction events.

We need messages to be targeted towards the most important audiences, and we need to monitor consumer behaviour – not just the media coverage – in response to these events.

The ConversationThe scientific evidence for which action best saves elephants – burning or using regulated ivory sales to fund conservation – is still inconclusive. But as long as we move forward with ivory destruction, let’s make sure we monitor its impact.

Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, PhD Candidate – Wildlife Cameraman, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef: going beyond our backyard to protect the reef



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Photo Jorge Alvarez Romero.

Georgina Gurney, James Cook University

From place-based to problem-based campaigns, we are seeing a rise in initiatives aiming to foster collective environmental stewardship among concerned citizens across the globe. These international communities have arisen to meet new environmental challenges and seize the opportunities presented by our increasingly connected world.

Traditional approaches to community engagement have tended to focus only on the involvement of local people. However, the recently launched Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef initiative highlights the changing nature of community engagement aimed at fostering environmental stewardship.

In a globalised world, maintaining treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems affected by global-scale threats demands new approaches that involve participation not only of people living locally, but also those in distant places.

A connected world

Today’s environmental problems tend to be characterised by social and environmental connections with distant places.

In terms of environmental connections, places such as the Great Barrier Reef are increasingly affected by global threats. These include: poor water quality associated with port dredging driven by international mining; reef fisheries influenced by national and international markets; and, most importantly, coral bleaching caused by climate change. Social and political action beyond the local is need to combat these threats.




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Social connections are increasing through both ease of travel and social media and other forms of virtual communication. This provides opportunities to engage more people across the globe to take meaningful action than ever before. People are able to form and maintain attachments to special places no matter where they are in the world.

Our recent research, involving more than 5,000 people from over 40 countries, shows that people living far from the Great Barrier Reef can have strong emotional bonds comparable to locals’ attachments. These bonds can be strong enough to motivate them to take action.

Harnessing social media

Increasing social connections across the globe don’t only allow people in distant locations to maintain their attachments to a place. They also provide a vehicle to leverage those attachments into taking meaningful actions to protect these places.

Such strategies can now be used even in the most remote of locations – such as 60 metres above the forest floor in a remote part of Tasmania.

During her 451-day tree sit, activist Miranda Gibson co-ordinated an online action campaign. She was able to engage a global audience through blogging, live streaming and posting videos and photos.




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Social media provide a new way to foster a sense of community among people far and wide. In this sense, “community” doesn’t have to be local; individuals with common interests and identities can share a sense of community globally. Indeed, this is a key ingredient for collective action.

Employing images and language targeted to appeal to people’s shared attachments to a place can help increase collective stewardship of that place.

These global communities reflect “imagined communities”, a concept developed by political scientist Benedict Anderson to analyse nationalism. Anderson suggests that nations are imagined in the sense that members “will never know most of their fellow members or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.

Such communities of environmental stewardship can have significant impact. For example, this type of community – which UTAS Professor Libby Lester termed “transnational communities of concern” – played a key role in the decline in Japanese market demand for Tasmanian forest products.

Beyond slacktivism

An important challenge in engaging distant communities in environmental stewardship is to avoid the pitfalls of “slacktivism”.

This refers to the phenomenon of people taking online actions that require little effort, such as joining a Facebook group. It makes them feel good about contributing to a cause but can stop them from taking further action that has real on-the-ground impacts.




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More meaningful options are available to people in remote places that can result in real change. These include lobbying national governments, international organisations (such as the World Heritage Committee), or transnational corporations (to prioritise corporate social responsibility, for example). Most organisations that have successfully engaged distant people in environmental stewardship, including Fight for Our Reef, have tended to take a political approach to help with lobbying efforts.

Other meaningful actions that can be undertaken remotely include supporting relevant NGOs and reducing individual consumption.

A new approach to global citizenship

The Citizens for the Reef emphatically state that they are “not looking for Facebook likes” but seek “real action”.

The six actions being promoted include reducing consumption of four disposable products, eliminating food wastage, and financially supporting crown-of-thorns starfish control. Signed-up citizens are given an “impact score”, based on undertaking these actions and recruiting others, and can compare their progress to others around the world.

The initiative provides an example of a new form of environmental activism that is emerging in response to increasing global environmental and social connection. The significant challenge for this initiative is to gain the sustained engagement of enough people to achieve real-world impact.

The ConversationUltimately, however, while the local to global public certainly have a critical part to play in addressing these threats, this does not diminish the responsibility of government and the private sector for safeguarding the future livelihood of the Great Barrier Reef.

Georgina Gurney, Environmental Social Science Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.