The challenges of campaigning against wildlife trafficking in Vietnam


by  on 1 August 2019
Part of anti-trafficking campaign in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.
  • “Be Their Bodhisattva,” a striking anti-wildlife trafficking campaign, was organized in Vietnam from Jan. 25 to March 25 this year.
  • The campaign caught the attention of both the public and prominent national media outlets.
  • However, record-breaking seizures of wildlife parts destined for Vietnam in the months since demonstrate the breadth and depth of the problem.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — In late January, WildAid and the Ho Chi Minh City-based Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE) launched a graphic anti-wildlife trafficking campaign focused on three animals: pangolins, elephants and rhinos.

In a bold move, the organizers brought a group of bloodied, weakened statues of these animals to Buddhist temples, the center of spiritual life for most Vietnamese, around the country. This eye-catching strategy attracted plenty of public and media attention, but how impactful was the campaign in a country that acts as both a major transit hub and end point for wildlife products?

There are two ways to measure the success of a campaign like this, according to John Baker, chief program officer and managing director at WildAid.

“Our general approach is we usually do [an] awareness and attitude-behavior type survey,” he told Mongabay over Skype. “We try to do it every two years so that we’re asking the same questions and measuring any changes over time.”

The other method, which is how WildAid and CHANGE measured the “Be Their Bodhisattva” campaign, is to track public engagement.

“We measure all the metrics of that specific activity,” Baker said. “So if we put up 1,000 billboards or we have a video, usually we can track how many times the video was played and on what media outlets. Sometimes it’s broadcast, sometimes it’s online, and then other types of measuring, like social media interactions.”

Public engagement

A wildlife trafficking campaign sign in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.
A wildlife trafficking campaign sign in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

A post-campaign metrics report provided to Mongabay by CHANGE shows that it received plenty of interaction from the public.

According to the report, ‘’Be Their Bodhisattva” received nearly 140,000 Facebook likes, as well as 18,675 “total collectable mentions,” which include posts and comments. Facebook is the most popular social media network in Vietnam.

Overall, 91.2 percent of these mentions were created by what’s known as “earned media,” meaning posts and interactions not involving WildAid or CHANGE, the creators of the original social media posts about the campaign.

Meanwhile, local news platforms mentioned the effort 95 times, the vast majority of which were positive, while eight were negative and 17 were neutral. Most of the negative mentions came from Zing, a local news outlet, which argued that temples were an inappropriate location for the campaign, especially during the Lunar New Year, Vietnam’s biggest holiday.

The public reaction on social media was overwhelmingly positive as well, with 90.9 percent responding in a positive manner, compared to 7.7 percent neutral and just 1.3 percent negative.

“We were pretty happy with the magnitude of this,” Baker said. “Up to 30 million Vietnamese people saw the campaign, and we didn’t pay a single dollar for placement.”

That is nearly a third of the country’s population of 96 million. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message, and Vietnam has continued to make international headlines for wildlife product seizures of astonishing scale.

Record-breaking trafficking hauls

On May 24, Reuters reported that Vietnamese customs officials at a port in the country’s south had seized more than 5 tons of pangolin scales hidden in a shipment from Nigeria. This came just nine days after authorities at the biggest port in northern Vietnam, Hai Phong, discovered 8.3 tons of pangolin scales, also shipped from Africa.

These seizures occurred less than two months after Singaporean customs officers confiscated 12.9 tons of pangolin scales worth $52.3 million at the island nation’s port, believed to be the largest such seizure in history. The shipment, which included 177 kilograms (390 pounds) of elephant ivory, was transiting from Nigeria to Vietnam. Singapore Customs and the National Parks Board estimated that up to 17,000 pangolins had been slaughtered for their scales in this case.

On July 23, Singapore announced yet another massive wildlife trafficking haul: 8.8 tons of elephant ivory, a record for the country, and 11.9 tons of pangolin scales in a ship heading to Vietnam from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On July 28, AFP reported that officials at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi had discovered 55 pieces of rhino horn weighing 125 kilograms (275 pounds) encased in plaster. Reporting from Britain’s Telegraph added that the horns had arrived on an Etihad Airways flight from the United Arab Emirates, and at the time of writing the source country had not been announced.

These seizures illustrate the desperate need for campaigns like “Be Their Bodhisattva,” as countries in Africa are rapidly being emptied of these species due to demand from Vietnam and China.

Asked whether the campaign may have increased awareness among customs officials, leading to stronger diligence in uncovering wildlife trafficking, Baker said he couldn’t answer with certainty.

“I can’t say for sure in the case of Vietnam that any of those seizures were resulting from this, but I think there’s got to be some effect,” he said.

He cited examples of previous work in China when highlighting the impact such campaigns can have in official circles.

“When we were working hard on the ivory ban in China, some people criticized us, saying we were just putting celebrities on billboards and what we really need to do is change government policy,” he said. “What I tried to explain is that we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that government leaders see these campaigns, and policymakers are people too.

“For example, there was a legislative officer in the People’s National Congress, and when they announced a strengthening of their wildlife law to have a maximum penalty of 10 years, this guy in his written statement included the slogan of our campaign. We had never met him, but they do notice,” Baker said.

Campaigning without shaming

When it came to “Be Their Bodhisattva,” WildAid and CHANGE wanted to spark a conversation while avoiding ostracizing the few people who actually use products derived from pangolin scales, elephant ivory or rhino horn.

“Our goal is really setting a new social norm,” Baker said. “We’re not trying to isolate the one guy who decided he wants to buy rhino horn because his liver is failing … It’s not a winning debate to challenge national heritage and cultural values, it’s more to raise other questions like, ‘We’re killing these animals, do we really want the blood on our hands?’ We hope that this is a reminder. We hope the daughter and the grandkids and the other people in the family tell their relative who bought it, ‘Hey, we saw that at the temple, the monk talked about how we shouldn’t be harming these animals, it’s not a good thing.’”

Enforcement is the other side of this equation, and on that front Vietnam appears to be struggling. For example, no one has been prosecuted for the recent massive wildlife seizures.

“They don’t track it to the buyer — that’s the next phase, it’s the Holy Grail, and it’s the difficulty in Vietnam,” Baker said.

To highlight just how difficult this is, he cited a customs official at a port in Ho Chi Minh City that WildAid gave an award to after several ivory shipments were interdicted at the facility.

“We ended up getting him in hot water with more senior officials because he was seen as taking credit,” Baker said. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Banner image: Part of anti-trafficking campaign in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

About the reporter: Michael Tatarski is Editor-in-Chief of the Saigoneer and a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @miketatarski

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