In nearly every ecosystem on Earth, threatened animals are being killed and trapped to meet the demand for illegal animal parts, a trade that falls only behind drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking in size. Along the way, an untold number of species, from charismatic ones like rhinos and tigers to little-known turtles, are disappearing under the weight of consumer demand.
Thankfully, global leaders are increasingly focused on the trade. Today is the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, a major event hosted by the UK government aimed at developing concrete plans for fighting wildlife trafficking. Some new steps have already been announced: The US will reform ivory rules as part of a new wildlife plan, while China, which crushed its ivory stockpile this year amid widespread criticism over its role in the ivory trade, has signaled that it will take renewed efforts to combat illegal markets. A new international plan is also expected to be announced later today.
"We want to support the amazing work already done in Africa, Asia and elsewhere and send the unequivocal message that this stops now," said UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. "We will confront the crisis and we will beat it."
Also in London are many of the NGOs and advocacy groups whose awareness campaigns have had demonstrable effects globally, such as a marked decline in the shark fin market. One group that's been very vocal is WildAid, which is supported in London by the Duke of Cambridge, along with David Beckham, Yao Ming, and Jackie Chan, who have all been featured in WildAid's campaign.
This morning I chatted with Chan and WildAid executive director Peter Knights about their efforts to quell the demand for wildlife parts.
Motherboard: How's it going in London?
Peter Knights: Jackie got to meet Prince William last night and he was very supportive, and we're hoping this conference get some renewed commitment internationally from governments.
Yeah, today's kind of the big day isn't it?
Knights: They won't announce it until this evening, but they're supposed to be signing a declaration which hopefully has some specific things in it and not just generalities. They were very bullish about it last night, thinking they were going to make a breakthrough, so we're very hopeful. In the meantime we're going to keep banging away at the market.
Jackie, how did you get started in advocacy?
Chan: I think WildAid found me. They called me up and I wanted to do it. One time, for instance, I saw on TV how people kill sharks, rhino, elephants, tigers, and I thought it was wrong. When WildAid called me, I said yes immediately. Right now it's been almost 12 years, and every time they call me to do anything I do it right away.
When I was young, I got a lot of wrong messages. I was taught that tiger bone oil can help you with your health, or these kinds of suspicious things. So when grew up, I wanted to share the right message with the world.
Has your career helped you send that message?
Chan: It definitely has. When I was young, when I traveled around Asia, wherever I went they'd set up a big party for me. They always had shark fin soup, because they treated me as a very important person. After I saw how they killed the sharks, I kept the video and showed my friends. From now on, wherever I go, there's no more shark fin soup.
Shark fin demand has gone down so much in China, is it because people now understand how the industry works?
Chan: Yes! In the old days, nobody said where the sharks came from, where their fins came from. I think human beings, everybody has a good heart. When they see what's happening, they stop eating, they stop buying.
We need education, day by day and month by month, to teach them. If we can use celebrities and famous people at the same time, we can correct and right things more quickly.
Do you remember in your movie First Strike, at the very end, a shark almost eats you.
Now you stopped eating shark fins. Are you and sharks even now?
Chan: Yes. I love animals. When I was young, I had two St. Bernards, I still have a dog, I have a lot of cats in my company. My wife always says, "You spend a lot of money on animals. More than even me!" [laughs] It's a commitment. When you're caring for a dog, you have to take care of it for its whole life.
I think as a celebrity, we have to teach the young generation how to speak with the old generation. The old generation still thinks that goose blood and pig blood can clean your stomach of dust. Every day you eat a lot of dust that sits in your stomach, and when you eat goose blood and pig blood, that cleans your stomach.
That's nonsense. You can eat it, but it's not like it cleans your stomach. When I was young, they said you should eat pig brain because it makes you clever.
Chan: Yeah! I hated this kind of thing, but I ate it because I wanted to be clever. It's nonsense. This is why we should correct the young generation, tell them that these kinds of superstitious things are wrong.
This week there's a lot of talk about ivory and the Chinese government. Why is there so much pressure on the Chinese government about ivory and ivory markets?
Chan: I think the Chinese government has banned ivory for a long time, but China is too big. There are so many bad people underground who are still trading these kinds of things. You cannot find them, it's difficult.
Knights: They still have some legal trade in ivory, but it's still quite small. What's happening is that there's a lot of illegal trade on top. From what we understand, the government is looking at eliminating the legal trade, they're looking at it right now.
There's a new administration in China, and they're looking at this again, which is very hopeful. At the same time, we need the education to turn consumers off.
The thing that happened in January of this year is very encouraging. They destroyed six tons of ivory publicly, which is very encouraging.
Yeah, that was very good to see. And what about other markets, like tiger and bear parts?
Knights: Well, Jackie's done messages on a number of these different species, and obviously it's the same principle: We need to stop the buying. I think that as time goes on, they are declining.
Look at tigers: There's only 3,200 of left in the wild, so by definition, there can only be a tiny, tiny number of people that are actually consuming real tiger parts. You're trying to find a needle in a haystack. What we're trying to do with this campaign is make it socially unacceptable, as Jackie was saying. We've seen incredible results in the shark fin campaign, and I think that education is getting. It needs to be coupled with law enforcement, and if we can put those two things together, then we believe we can protect these animals.
Excellent. I had one last question for both of you: What's your favorite animal?
Chan: My favorite animal… I like cheetahs.
Is it the spots?
No, it's because cheetahs run fast.
Knights: And you like dogs as well, right?
Chan: Yeah. And also the eagle. They can fly really high and see very clearly. Those are two animals I really like.
Knights: And when he's got a break in his schedule, I'm hoping to take Jackie swimming with whale sharks.
Chan: Ah, yes, yes! It's a very cool shark.