Luxury, social status and wildlife trade in Asia; can this trend be reversed?

5 February 2019

This is a guest post from Rachel Smith, who won this year’s IFAW/Winchester essay competition with her essay, "Luxury, social status and wildlife trade in Asia; can this trend be reversed?"

From a young age I have been concerned about the plight of animals exploited for human gain. It seems unthinkable that magnificent animals, such as rhinos and elephants are at risk of extinction due to the greed of humankind.

Campaigns to protect endangered species have been ongoing for decades, but despite these efforts (including the formation of non-governmental organisations, the existence of conservation treaties and increased enforcement action) many species of wildlife are declining in numbers, rather than recovering. It seems that no matter how high profile an issue is or how charismatic the species, the profit to gain from the sales of wildlife products is too enticing to overcome.

When it comes to wildlife products, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that most of the demand comes from Asia, predominantly China. It is therefore important to examine the motives for this demand, taking into account the current social and economic context. Without doing so, it is impossible to combat this trade effectively, and with population and income levels increasing in China and neighbouring Vietnam, consumer demand for wildlife products such as ivory is set to increase, unless urgent action is taken to reduce the appeal of wildlife goods.

Currently, the luxury goods industry holds power in manipulating buying patterns. My essay presents the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’ (the spending of money on luxury goods to display one’s economic status) in Asia and link it to the desire to attain social status through the purchase of rare or ‘luxury’ wildlife products. The essay discusses the negative impact of the growth of the Asian luxury market on wildlife trade, and presents potential strategies in response, including drawing upon the social sciences to encourage a more socially conscious consumer market.

There are many challenges working within animal protection in Asia, which I have witnessed first-hand having worked internationally in this field. In light of this, The Winchester Master of Science in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law has encouraged me to think more strategically as to how solutions can be found. I would like to thank both Winchester University and IFAW for the opportunity to enter this competition and share my perspective.

Next year I will be undertaking a volunteer conservation role in Vietnam focussed on policy and advocacy in illegal wildlife trade, where I hope to put my learnings into practice.

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