Changing people’s behaviour can stop wildlife trade and help prevent pandemics
13 Aug 2020|

Shutting down wet markets trading wildlife for food and traditional medicine is only part of the challenge in stopping future viruses from turning into pandemics like Covid-19. The bigger challenge is ending the demand for wild animals in the first place. Getting the message right is critical, and bodies such as the World Health Organization are forming advisory teams of behavioural psychologists to help.

Even so, international non-government organisations like the WWF believe the WHO is getting the message completely wrong on shutting wet markets, making it harder for health experts to cut through on the dangers of eating wild animals. The WHO’s position effectively condones the continuing trade in wildlife; earlier this year it said that while governments should ‘enforce bans on the sale of wildlife’, wet markets have an ‘important role in some societies’. In a recent email, the WHO clarified that it endorses banning the trade in live wild animals only, not the sale of dead wildlife in markets for food or traditional medicine.

Behavioural change experts at the US Wildlife Conservation Society agree that this kind of mixed messaging makes it difficult to convince people to take wild animals off the menu. They say change starts only when people are given one clear message.

Pangolins remain a focus for wildlife campaigners in the quest to control the Covid-19 pandemic. An animal like the pangolin could have been a vector in the transmission of the novel coronavirus from bats to humans and pangolins are a favourite on the black market. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says pangolins, both dead and alive, are the most trafficked animal in the world. They are bought for food and their scales are used in traditional medicine, mainly in Africa and Asia.

According to UNODC research released this year, Chinese demand for pangolins continues. Half of the people it surveyed in China had bought wild animals for food or as traditional medicine products and said they would continue to do so.

Environmental destruction can lead to disease outbreaks, so conservation groups are tackling the psychology behind the desire to consume wildlife in the first place, especially its association with ideas of luxury, status and medical efficacy.

Conservation groups are drawing inspiration from the behavioural insights generated by successful public health campaigns on HIV and AIDS in Asia and global anti-smoking initiatives.

Campaigns from the 1980s to late 1990s proved that health education through religious institutions like monasteries in Thailand can change behaviour and attitudes in young people. Health NGOs worked with religious leaders to educate young boys about HIV transmission and safety, tackling misinformation about the disease. They found that clear, scientifically backed information presented by respected religious leaders and teachers in the local language was successful in changing false beliefs about HIV and AIDS.

However, according to the wildlife NGO Traffic, while education and facts can work with young people, beliefs and social pressure are more important for adults. To change adult behaviour, the NGO focuses on those who are sitting on the fence, the ‘doubters’. Members of this group may be worried about their health but may also hold on to some traditional beliefs about the benefits of consuming traditional medicine, for example. Contradictory beliefs can be an important lever for behavioural change—the trick here is to mobilise fear to tip the balance.

Another example is the success of the anti-tobacco campaigns that aim to overwhelm the positive associations of smoking with graphic images of its health implications. Fear about one’s own health combined with strong images of how repulsive an activity is can be the starting point for changing behaviour.

Reducing demand for wildlife by using a concerted and ongoing campaign to frighten people about the dangers not just to health, but to livelihood from trading wild animals is also having an impact. Maria Diekmann, the founder of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust in Namibia, has recently seen the benefits of the Namibian government’s efforts to stop poaching of pangolins by giving magistrates more power to increase fines and jail traffickers. Promisingly, these new laws seem to be deterring corrupt tour operators and others from helping local mafias find pangolins to sell into the Asian market.

On the demand side of this trade, Diekmann believes Chinese celebrities have been instrumental in making the wildlife trade unpalatable. Celebrities influence the middle classes and often have more clout than scientists when it comes to explaining the facts about the wildlife trade. For example, the Chinese public had very little awareness that pangolins were being killed for the medicinal use of their scales. But once Chinese actress Angela Wing started supporting the conservation of pangolins (and Diekmann’s work), this changed.

Wing reached more than 50 million people on the issue in only one week through her social media channels—the kind of reach most NGOs or governments can only dream of.

The WWF agrees that social media can help stop people from buying wildlife products. In one recent example, the WWF sent messages to visitors arriving in Thailand and Vietnam during Lunar New Year exhorting them not to buy ivory products. The WWF also uses ambassadors and celebrities to endorse their campaigns with the aim of framing animal products as unfashionable and dated.

However, without the coordinated support of organisations like the WHO, reducing demand for wild animals and wildlife products remains a significant challenge for environmental groups. Fortunately, the examples mentioned above show that action from local governments and community-focused NGOs, plus a good dose of celebrity support, can make an impact.