Conservation campaign reaches billions

October 15, 2015

Every week, the environmental messages of WildAid, whose mission is “to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes”, reach up to a billion people. WildAid’s inventive campaigning to save endangered species has won the support and participation of some of the world’s best-known faces, from Prince William of the United Kingdom to conservationist Jane Goodall.

“When we are on state TV in China, or national TV in India, we reach huge audiences. And we use a variety of networks,” explains WildAid’s cofounder and director, British-born Peter Knights.

In 1998, Knights won became an Associate Laureate for his goal to eliminate consumer demand for endangered wild animal by-products through a public awareness campaign focused on Asia. He had formerly been employed as an investigator of illegal trade in endangered species, but by the time he won his Rolex Award, he was running the world’s first international programme aimed at reducing demand for endangered species products. This developed into WildAid which he co-founded in 2000.

Knights has played a decisive role in WildAid, an environmental organization that sets itself apart from many others in its priorities, its communications and its financial and internal management. He is very much the public face of the NGO, but also its CEO and key strategist.

Peter Knights, photo by Stephen Loewinsohn.

“Conventional conservation is about the supply side – stopping the poaching of animals, for example – not really focusing on the demand, which is what we do,” says Knights, who describes himself as an “unconventional” environmentalist. His NGO’s motto is: “When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.” Knights adds that in its early years WildAid had trouble raising funds because its emphasis on persuading citizens worldwide not to buy animal products did not fit with the policies of many potential funders. Gradually, in the past few years, the tide has begun to turn and other organizations agree that WildAid’s approach is working. At the same time, however, WildAid is also involved in activities to stop poaching.

Knights has evidence – and statistics – to show that WildAid is making a big difference – by changing people’s attitudes and doing so on a large scale. “Currently shark fin consumption is estimated down 50–70 per cent in China in the last two years and down 30 per cent-plus in other parts of Asia. Awareness is up 50 per cent in China on elephant and rhino poaching.”

Knights has also been credited with playing a significant role in the recent agreement by China and the U.S. (the two biggest buyers) to impose almost total bans on the import and export of ivory, in a bid to end the illegal poaching of elephants. The two countries also agreed to strengthen measures to combat wildlife trafficking. “China banning ivory sales is probably the largest single step that could be taken to reduce poaching in Africa. Ninety five percent of Chinese we surveyed were in favour of the ban and Yao Ming proposed it to the People’s Congress, which is a sign of tremendous progress.”

Amboseli National Park, Kenya (Andrew Wegst/WildAid)

One element of WildAid’s strategy is to focus on a number of charismatic and iconic species like elephants, as well as rhinos and sharks, whose body parts are particularly sought in certain regions of the world, especially Asia. This makes WildAid’s message easier for the public to understand.

Unlike many other NGOs, WildAid does not make fund-raising a large part of its communications activities – there is no direct mailing urging people to donate. Most of its funding comes from relatively small donations from its supporters, along with a few bigger private funders. Information about the organization’s funding and budget is on open view on its website. Knights insists that transparency and efficiency are essential to WildAid, with a relatively small proportion of its funds going into administration. Charity Navigator, a U.S.-based website that evaluates charitable organizations, rates WildAid highly, including a 100 per cent rating for accountability and transparency.

Famous actors

Another part of WildAid’s success lies in the ability of Knights and his colleagues to persuade major media outlets to give their cause pro-bono coverage, worth almost US$200 million a year. And they have enlisted a hundred famous actors, athletes and musicians as WildAid ambassadors. Among them are actors Minnie Driver, Harrison Ford and Ralph Fiennes, musician Lang Lang, entrepreneur Richard Branson and conservationist Jane Goodall. The list of ambassadors from sports includes basketball player Yao Ming and Olympic athlete Dwight Phillips. Asked how these household names are persuaded to become WildAid ambassadors, Knight explains: “These people believe in what we’re trying to do and we have a pretty impressive roster [of existing ambassadors] and we distribute quality material [for communications].”

The organization enjoys a high media profile, with many publications and broadcasters seeking comments from Knights for environmental news. During international outrage over the killing by a foreign hunter of one of Zimbabwe’s most cherished lions, Cecil, in July 2015, Knights was prominently quoted by, among others, London’s Financial Times, and international TV network CNN.

Kenya Elephant (Andrew Wegst/WildAid)

Habitat loss

But Knights candidly confesses that there is plenty of frustration in environmentalism and some failures – with, for example, the future of tiger and rhinoceros species looking very precarious. “Part of the trouble with tigers is that we started addressing the problem too late,” he says. “The problems causing their disappearance is partly habitat loss as well as poaching, but it was hard to get money for this before 2011. But if poaching stops, numbers could rebound quickly. Rhinos are also in great danger; there are only about 4,000 black rhinos left.”

Knights, who was recently nominated for the 2016 Indianapolis Prize, a biennial award recognizing global leaders at the forefront of animal conservation, is eager, naturally, to emphasize the positive: “Our programme is the largest conservation awareness programme in the world,” he explains. “Last year we had $197 million of donated media space and [our campaigns] featured the likes of Prince William, David Beckham, Jackie Chan, Yao Ming. We are helping to protect elephants, rhinos, sharks, manta rays and pangolins, as well as doing marine protection in places like the Galapagos. WildAid now has offices in the U.S., China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Tanzania and Ecuador.”

In an interview with the National Geographic’s news website several years after founding WildAid, Knights said:My personal goal is to make myself unemployed. I’d love to go and sit and watch this wildlife and take photographs and things like that, that would be my goal to do that, but I’ve seen so many things going on and my conscience tells me that, if I don’t try and do something about this, there will be no wildlife to go take photographs of.”

Learn more about Peter Knights

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