The phrase “wildlife trafficking” calls to mind something happening far, far away: poachers killing elephants, rhinoceroses, pangolins, and sea turtles for parts they can then sell.
But wildlife trafficking is also happening every day right here in the United States. You can see it at that road-side zoo, where guests can pay to pet tigers; at that beach-front stand where smiling tourists can post for a photo with an iguana; even via those ads online listing reptiles for sale. Animal parts and plants are in high demand in illegal markets, including American black bear gallbladders, paws, claws, and teeth; eagle and hawk feathers; live reptiles; walrus ivory; ginseng root and cacti.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities are in a unique position to educate the general public on what wildlife trafficking looks like, and how each and every person can play a role in putting an end to it. That’s why the organization has been conducting research to understand public sentiment, educate people, and spur action to put an end to the trade. “The public trusts AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums when talking about wild animals,” said Rob Vernon, AZA’s senior vice president, communications and strategy. “Through this research we know that they trust us when we talk about the reasons illegal wildlife trade needs to stop.”
In 2018 and 2020, AZA surveys found that people oppose wildlife trafficking (74 percent) but are largely unaware that they may be contributing to the problem. When asked what important actions zoos and aquariums can take to protect species in the wild, about half of those surveyed selected “Advocating for legislation” or “Providing funding” as top priorities. AZA also conducted message testing, and learned what kind of phrases are most likely to lead to action.
Armed with these insights, AZA’s Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA), which is a coalition of more than 90 leading companies, non-profit organizations, and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, has been working with institutions and partners to help devise and support exhibits and events that raise awareness around wildlife trafficking. In Washington, for example, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Tacoma, collaborated with the Port of Seattle and other partners to design an educational exhibit at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; and in California, Oakland Zoo partnered with California Department of Fish and Wildlife to host an event that encouraged people to relinquish items made from wildlife, including ivory.
With each educational endeavor, Vernon said people in attendance have been energized to play even a small part in the fight against wildlife trafficking.
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“Guests are taking pride in the fact that they’re able to help in a small way, whether it’s sending an email or making a donation,” said Vernon. “It’s an act and something tangible they can do to help with the problem.”
More than 36 million travelers fly in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport each year and since last spring, people coming and going from the S Concourse—the hub for international travelers—have had an opportunity to learn about wildlife trafficking and the steps they can take to prevent it. That’s thanks to the Savvy Traveler exhibit, a collaboration among Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, and AZA’s Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, along with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The exhibit educates travelers on how to shop for ethical souvenirs, photograph wildlife responsibly, explore respectfully, and eat sustainably. Also included in the display are trafficked items that have been confiscated at the airport, including a belt made from a pangolin, and trinkets made of ivory and turtle shells.
Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman said that many of the people who come through the airport are animal lovers who are often embarking on trips to see wildlife abroad. He hopes that if they learn what to look out for before boarding a plane, they’ll be more likely to make responsible decisions at their destination.
“People care, they just need the information,” he said. “This information will empower us to keep the wild world wild.”
In designing the exhibit, the messaging mattered. Kerston Swartz, who is director of government affairs and advocacy at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, said that the team was mindful to avoid negative messages and graphic photos; and the tone aims to be encouraging, not preachy. To inspire action, a sign directs people to a website where they can pledge to be a savvy traveler.
Overall, Swartz said that the exhibit assumes people are well-intentioned, but sometimes don’t know when they’re making purchasing decisions that could harm wildlife.
“People aren’t out there hurting animals on purpose. They’re not the bad actors,” said Swartz. “But they’ve got to keep an eye out for the bad actors.”
The Seattle-Tacoma Airport exhibit is a pilot project; other airport displays are also planned for the future at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
When Amy Gotliffe, vice president, conservation with the Conservation Society of California was planning an End the Trade Day at Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif., in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), she and her team worked with AZA to create positive messaging around the event. As people brought in items such as tusks, horns, bones, furs, turtle shells, and other animal products, which would be handed over to CDFW, event organizers wanted to be sure it was a day free of blame or shame.
What she found was that attendees were overwhelmingly thankful for the opportunity.
“People who brought these items were just so grateful that there was something positive to do with them, and it was so ridiculously sweet,” said Gotliffe. “I probably cried three times.”
All told, the event brought in more than 200 items, ranging from chess games and hair combs made of ivory to a jacket made from the fur of a black-and-white colobus monkey. Often, the items were family heirlooms—originating, in one case, from a grandfather’s trip to Zimbabwe—that had fallen out of favor, but the owners didn’t know what to do with them. By surrendering them to a conservation-minded organization, participants could feel relieved that the items were no longer at risk of contributing to commercial markets, as could happen if they were to one day wind up in an estate sale or auction. After all, as long as consumers support the market, it will continue to exist.
Patrick Foy, who is captain in the law enforcement division of CDFW, was on-hand at the event to collect the items. He said his organization will use the relinquished goods as tools to train CDFW officers on how to distinguish between different types of ivory, such as elephant, walrus, hippopotamus, and warthog, and to aid researchers in the agency’s forensics lab, which performs DNA profiles on different species.
Public sentiment has changed drastically since the 1950s and 60s—eras when people would display elephant tusks and ivory in their homes with pride—and that’s a good thing, said Foy. He hopes that with more education and through more events, the tide will continue to turn against this kind of animal exploitation, and people will get rid of more items when they start to realize the cost behind, say, a carving made of ivory.
“That’s a symbol of an elephant that was just poached and killed,” he said. “If people are educated to understand the major implications of that purchase, then we hope that they will say, ‘Oh, my goodness, no, I don’t want that in my house.”
And when it comes to reaching large and diverse audiences, filled with young animal lovers, he added, zoos make excellent partners for sharing that message.
The events in Oakland and Seattle are just two examples of ways that AZA institutions are partnering with agencies and organizations to educate broad audiences and put a stop to wildlife trafficking. A number of other events like these have happened already, and more are in the works.
Taliah Farnsworth, who is an education specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Office of Law Enforcement, National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository, has been collaborating with AZA on a series of Toss the Tusk events that will be held across the country in 2022 and 2023. During those events, FWS will educate guests about law enforcement’s role in the world of conservation, and accept the ivory products that people surrender. Those items will then travel to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, Colo., which holds around 1.4 million wildlife products that were seized during investigations and inspections.
Farnsworth said she’s eager to talk to zoo guests about the importance of elephants and other species, and about the threat that the illegal wildlife trade poses to animals everywhere—including in our own cities and states.
[Related story: Tigers Threatened with Extinction]
“It is critical to know that wildlife trafficking isn’t someone else’s problem to solve—it is all of ours,” she said. “By understanding how wildlife trafficking could impact our lives, or the species we love, we gain the power to be part of the solution.”
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.