Shark fin trade declines as one campaign puts the power of conservation into the hands of consumers
On a dreary day in Beijing, hundreds of local residents huddled together outside of a shopping mall and eagerly awaited the arrival of the stars of China’s popular variety show “Happy Camp”. In the front row of the audience, sat New York Times blogger Andy Revkin, who came on a break from a global climate conference accompanied by a translator seated next to him.
Two of Happy Camp’s hosts, Xie Na and Du Haitao, took the stage in black shirts with “WildAid” emblazoned across their chests. In a combination of bold English letters and Chinese script, the backs of their t-shirts read: When the buying stops, the killing can too. The tagline was made popular by WildAid, the only NGO working solely to reduce the demand of endangered wildlife products. The words, a reminder of the power of each consumer, appeared on screens across the stage and hung above the crowd on a billboard featuring the same celebrity conservationists on stage.
This moment was the result of nearly seven years of steady campaigning, a seemingly endless stream of public service messages featuring wildlife ambassadors including Yao Ming, Jackie Chan, and Richard Branson, and a partnership with China’s CCTV that continues to broadcast WildAid’s messages to millions of Chinese consumers in primetime, all free of charge.
Only a few months ago, the NGO Shark Savers, which recently announced a merger with WildAid, and several partners, including National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild, and WWF-Hong Kong, launched the “I’m FINished with Fins” initiative, the latest push to end shark fin consumption. It gained support in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, culminating with this WildAid launch in mainland China. The multimedia campaign featured Hollywood style broadcast messages, billboards, magazine ads, and an online recruiting platform created through a partnership with Sina Weibo, China’s popular micro-blogging platform.
The results announced on-stage were beyond expectations. More than 100 celebrities joined the campaign and in less than four weeks of online support via Sina Weibo, roughly 300,000 users pledged not to consume shark fin through texts or with photos, reaching more than 2 million subscribers.
Despite the misty rain, spirits were high among the spectators. The tide is turning and the future is looking brighter for sharks. New estimates have yet to be gathered, but before the campaign, estimates suggested that fins from up to 73 million sharks were used in shark fin soup each year as demand grew among an uninformed public.
As the event concluded and the celebrity ambassadors made their way off-stage, the WildAid staff busily sent updates to the San Francisco headquarters. The event was a success, but what could the supporters expect next?
The answer came in the following weeks as WildAid rolled out more scheduled communications, feeding the growing number of supporters eager to share updates and information with their friends online. The news headlines verified what WildAid and its partners suspected: the shark fin trade was continuing to decline.
In August, WildAid conducted a survey where 85% of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu residents interviewed said they stopped eating shark fin soup in the last three years, and 65% of those said awareness campaigns was a reason why they stopped.
Demand was shrinking and the value of fins on the open market was decreasing, a sure sign that the industry was feeling the effects of the continuous campaigning. Media reports from Western and Chinese publications declared an estimated 50% -70% decrease in consumption and the market value of shark fin had been cut nearly in half.
This success is certainly significant, however the demand has not been eliminated entirely yet. The campaigning must and will continue, harnessing the momentum of the growing ranks of supporters and celebrity ambassadors. The Chinese urban “middle class” consumers are reportedly predicted to rise by an estimated 250 million over the next 15 years, bringing a combination of old customs and new money. Conspicuous consumption and powerful new aspirations will either drive a massive expansion in the use of wildlife parts and products in China or be diverted by the messages created by WildAid and its partners.
WildAid’s communications model is now being applied to its campaigns to stop the demand for ivory and rhino horn in China and Vietnam. Partners including Save the Elephants and the African Wildlife Foundation are supplying the financial support necessary for WildAid to continue to reach out to consumers. With smaller numbers of elephants and rhinos facing a rising poaching crisis, the campaigns will be streamlined, benefitting from seven years of experience and relationships with media partners, that may just help turn China into the world’s largest conservationist.
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