Poaching is among the greatest threats to endangered species. It's enough of a problem that $1.3 billion dollars a year are invested in trying to stop it, and there are appeals for more, making it important that money is spent wisely. This thought led Dr Matthew Holden of the University of Queensland to consider whether it is more beneficial to spend limited budgets on catching poachers, or to use famous athletes and film stars to discourage people from buying the products.
The argument is not a theoretical one. Governments and non-profits already send money to wildlife trafficking hotspots – donations can be made at places like this – but there are also advertising campaigns that use figures like David Beckham and Yao Ming to try to bend the demand curve down.
In Conservation Letters, Holden provides an analysis of two examples; the killing of elephants for ivory, and the hunting of vulnerable species for “bushmeat”. In both cases, we need more information to provide a conclusive answer, and there is certainly not going to be a one-size-fits-all response.
Nevertheless, Holden said in an emailed statement; “We found that typical advertising budgets would only need to reduce the price of the wildlife product by a few percentage points to be more effective than spending the budget on more police.” Measuring the effects of ad campaigns on prices is certainly hard. The paper notes a welcome 66 percent drop in the going rate for ivory, coinciding with a recent advertising campaign encouraging people to avoid it. Unfortunately, we can't tell how much of the fall came from the advertising, and how much from other factors.
Holden admitted to IFLScience the modeling inevitably depends on certain assumptions. For example, past studies on the poaching of African wildlife for international markets have estimated just 6 percent of the final price goes to the poachers. Holden has assumed this stays constant, rather than figures further up the supply chain taking a disproportionate cut if prices drop.
The paper also relies on the assumption that poachers are rational actors, less likely to kill elephants when the risk of getting caught increases, at least where appropriate punishments are applied. However, it admits this may not always be the case.
With all these caveats, it appears advertising against products is often the most effective use of money for internationally traded products. Celebrities aren't essential, with Holden noting to IFLScience the campaign rolled all marketing campaigns into one; he's leaving it to advertising agencies to know how best to influence potential buyers.
The situation is more ambiguous for bushmeat, where local radio campaigns have produced no measured decline in demand. However, where advertising is cheap, even small effects might yield more benefits than a greater number of rangers.