Having spent time with rangers and affected communities in Gabon, my next trip was to Thailand to try and understand the mechanics and motivation behind the surge in demand for animal products. The first thing that hit me was the amount of wildlife smuggling going on in Thailand. I saw a lot of ivory in Africa but somehow, in the neon glow of Bangkok, piles of African elephant tusks looked more alien, more menacing.
I started off photographing underneath Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. Suvarnabhumi is a hub for the Asian smuggling network, contraband in all guises – wildlife, narcotic and human – pass through daily in quantities and numbers that can’t even be guessed at. The Thai police weren’t able to show me the country’s stockpile (I wonder how much of it is still there) but the amount of ivory I saw just from the last few weeks of confiscations was staggering.
A few days later we got word that the Thai authorities had stopped a truck trying to cross the border from Thailand into Laos. In the back of the truck were 16 tiger cubs packed into crates. We were later able to photograph them being DNA tested as part of the government’s efforts to track wildlife contraband to its source. In the same week there was also a record haul of ivory in Hong Kong.
So why are animal parts so sought after in Asia? There are plenty of socio-historic explanations that have been put forward. Ivory, for example, has been traded as an aspirational commodity in China since the Ming dynasty. Now, of course, there are far more Chinese people with aspirations and a modern, capitalist market ready to cater to them. In more recent history, an unnamed politician in Vietnam (believed to be the major end destination for South African rhino) is said to have had his cancer cured by imbibing ground rhino horn, in turn kicking off the widespread belief that rhino horn may be a miracle cure for cancers and other serious illnesses.
The semi-mystical projection of human desires and needs onto the natural world is by no means exclusive to Asia. Throughout the world there are plenty of examples of natural ‘commodities’ being used as health boosters with no scientific backing, as well as pelts and furs being used as a means to attain status. However, these explanations go some way to explain why the demand for endangered animal parts is particularly prevalent in specfic Asian countries.
As I understand it, the environmental movement is currently working on two ways of addressing the problem. Firstly, using force and legislation to reduce supply. This involves bringing tougher penalties for smugglers and ensuring that convictions aren’t overturned or thrown out of court without a full trial. Secondly, using a rational argument to reduce demand. This involves debunking the myth of rhino horn (and other animal parts’) medicinal properties and raising awareness of the catastrophic environmental impact of the trade.
Both approaches are important, but they’re also both problematic. Laws around wildlife crime should, without a doubt, be equal to laws around drug smuggling and other serious offenses. The knock on effects of wildlife crime, as I discovered in Gabon, are complex and highly destructive, both socially and environmentally. But would tighter laws on wildlife crime make a difference? Thailand has the death penalty for drug smuggling but it remains the narcotics capital of Asia.
The medical myth is the most quoted cause of wildlife crime. The fact that we’re on the verge of losing an entire species to an insatiable demand for its horn (which is composed mostly of keratin, the same as human hair and fingernails) has all the irony and narrative hooks of a good tabloid story. And, in many ways, although I feel the truth of the situation has been slightly misrepresented, this story in its various forms has been instrumental in raising awareness around the issue in Europe and America. However, I don’t think it’s a story that will work in Vietnam or Thailand.
The majority of people I met whilst working on this issue had stories of vague acquaintances narrowly escaping fatal illnesses by resort to rare animal parts. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness will never believe in science as much as they believe in hope. Humans just aren’t wired that way and such stories will invariably beat science in capturing people’s imaginations.
As I see it, the battle to reduce consumption of animal parts must combine increased legal pressure with a change in perception through a line of reasoning that is emotional and tailored to the world of the consumer. Essentially, it will come down to who tells the best story. The animal kingdom, particularly the target species- elephants, rhinos and tigers, are incredibly beautiful. Complex, majestic, enigmatic. They speak to us of a natural ease and grace that we have lost, they represent an exaggeration of desirable human characteristics: speed, strength, courage and wisdom. The idea that I could ingest a part of them, absorb some of their power and reverse the hand fate has dealt me is an undeniably powerful story and I’m not surprised it has gained traction. Just like the western myth that rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine (it’s not). If stories are good enough they’ll tell themselves.
There’s no question that the role played by WWF, and other pressure groups, will be instrumental in any solution to end wildlife crime, but I think it’s equally important that journalists and campaigners don’t simply regurgitate press releases. Statistics and CITES appendices are not the right message for the consumers that I’ve met. What we need instead is a story as powerful as the story being told by those who have a vested interest in continuing the trade. Until we have that story, and really learn how to tell it, dead elephants will continue to bestow prestige in Thailand and dead rhinos will continue to cure cancer on the anonymous outer ring of Vietnam’s social circles.