Asian cultures have used wildlife for thousands of years as a medicinal source -- rhino horn was taken for liver disease, for example, while those with achy joints have been instructed to take monkey blood, men suffering from impotence use tiger penis, and sea turtle shells were thought to promote longevity.
By the 20th Century, these traditions had ballooned into an international market and had driven several species to extinction. Many of the estimated 1,500 animal species prized in Asia as medicine are now protected, yet the demand continues and poachers around the world are willing to feed these desires.
In fact, the most trafficked animal in the world now is the pangolin, or spiny anteater, which lives throughout Asia and Africa. The United Nations estimates that 1 million pangolins are killed each year and sent to East Asian markets, where the scales are extremely popular treatments for a huge range of ailments, from skin disease to asthma to rheumatoid arthritis to issues with lactation. In 2014, authorities discovered 956 pangolin carcasses in a van in China's Guangdong province, the largest such bust ever in China.
Founded in 2000, the non-profit WildAid is trying to stop the international wildlife trade, an industry that is thought to bring in $20 billion per year. Much of the demand is from Asian nations like China and Vietnam, where wildlife parts are still considered medicine by many. “WildAid is conserving endangered wildlife around the world by working to end the illegal trade in wildlife products in our lifetime,” says John Baker, the managing director of WildAid. “WildAid focuses on reducing the demand for wildlife products, such as shark fin, elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolin and tiger parts, with celebrity-led media campaigns to raise consumer awareness and change societal attitudes and norms around consuming these products, as well as supporting efforts to strengthen protection and enforcement.”
Because we love its mission, Dao Labs has partnered with WildAid to help fund its international efforts. For every sale, Dao Labs has pledged to donate 1 percent to WildAid. WildAid has major offices in San Francisco, where Baker is based, and Beijing. Other teams work throughout Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and several African nations. One team, based in Ecuador, focuses on protecting marine reserves.
WildAid uses a two-pronged strategy to reduce demand. The organization works with local stakeholders and groups to educate the public and change the culture around wildlife trading. It also works with governments to strengthen enforcement of existing laws, thereby increasing the costs to poachers and disrupting their livelihood.
In China, especially, WildAid has seen a huge shift in public and regulatory perspective when it comes to the wildlife trade in just the last decade.
“We have active campaigns on rhino horn, pangolin and tiger in China and Vietnam where we are raising awareness about these products and the impacts of the poaching and illegal trade,” Baker continued. “In China, the government removed rhino horn from traditional medicine in 1996 so there has been good cooperation but pangolin scales are still used in large quantities, making the pangolin the world’s most trafficked mammal. The demand for products made from tiger bone, as well as for their skins, teeth and claws, threaten wild tiger populations.”
Part of the public education of WildAid’s mission involves tapping both local and international celebrities, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jackie Chan, to speak out against wildlife trafficking.
“Our campaigns feature TV ads and billboard campaigns with popular local celebrities,” explains Baker. “We have also produced TV documentaries where these celebrities travel to see the wildlife in the wild and then learn about the impacts of the poaching and the trade. We have large social media campaigns and we also partner with the government agencies to strengthen enforcement. Our new 5-episode series with Shanghai Media Group called ‘Celebrity Explorers’ will launch on June 13.”
WildAid’s research shows that the campaigns are working. A survey taken in December, 2016 in Vietnam, where the market for wildlife is particularly entrenched, shows that the belief that rhino horn has medicinal benefits has decreased from 69 percent in 2014 to 23 percent today. In addition, only 9 percent of those surveyed thought rhino horn cured cancer, down from 35 percent just two years prior. Over half of the Vietnamese surveyed said they’d heard messaging about protecting rhinos. Of those that heard the messaging, 89 percent recognized WildAid’s slogan and 99 percent thought that the messages were useful.
Currently, WildAid is working on getting international protection status for all eight species of pangolin. The natural habitat for these unique creatures is wide-ranging; there are Chinese pangolins, Indian pangolins and Philippine pangolins as well as three species that inhabit a wide swath of Africa, from South Africa to the Sudan in the northeast corner of the Continent to Guinea along the Western coast.
How can practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in the West help stop wildlife trafficking?
“Stop using wildlife products from endangered species and educate your clientele about such products while promoting alternative remedies,” Baker suggests. “In Vietnam, traditional medicine practitioners and the traditional medicine association partnered with us in producing TV ads and billboards informing the public about rhino horn. Now, we are trying to do the same for pangolin scales.”