Issues Magazine

Africam’s Fight against the Illegal Animal Trade

By Stephanie Henkel

The fight against the wildlife black market is an uphill battle, but compassionate organisations are rising to the challenge.

Wildlife trafficking – the illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife products – is a $10 billion per year industry. This type of crime has become an endemic problem that is causing irreversible harm to many species and the environment as a whole. The demand for ivory is fuelling elephant poaching, especially when one tusk can be worth more than an African household’s annual income.

Africam, an interactive website that provides live video footage of African wildlife, is using social media to fight the thriving illegal animal trade. This dedicated website (www.africam.com), along with other organisations including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is spreading awareness and sharing the Kill the Trade message. By having media users share candid wildlife images, Africam hopes to one day eliminate wildlife trafficking all together.

The Illegal Animal Trade

Elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns and tiger products are some of the most coveted commodities, with extremely high asking prices. Between 2007 and 2011, rhinoceros poaching in South Africa increased 3000 per cent. The number of tigers still in the wild is dwindling rapidly, with fewer than 3200 remaining.

The multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade industry is one of the most lucrative international criminal activities, and is widely believed to be second only to the illegal trade in drugs and arms. Wildlife trafficking is controlled by intricate crime organisations familiar with the legislative loopholes that allow this illicit market to flourish.

Demand is increasing and so is supply. If illegal poaching and animal trade continue at this rate, the African elephant population could be completely wiped out within the next 25 years.

The animal black market directly threatens many different species worldwide. Marine turtles, pangolins, birds and even exotic timbers are overexploited and on the fast track to extinction.

This loss of biodiversity can have a much larger impact: on ecosystems, climate stability and human health. Wildlife trafficking is a serious threat that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

Africam

Africam is a website devoted to wildlife and wildlife-related issues. According to Paul Penzhorn, director and co-owner of Africam, the dotcom “was born from the idea to use technology to take the uniqueness and beauty of the African bush and its wildlife to anyone around the world with an internet connection”. The website hopes to become the ultimate live and interactive window into the African wild by connecting humans and nature with the click of a mouse.

Part of Africam’s mission is to help conservation efforts through its platform and users. “Commercialism and conservation have to meet somewhere to create sustainability, and Africam wants to be on the forefront of this by working with people and organisations that really want to make a difference,” says Penzhorn.

Africam has formed strong relationships with a number of conservation groups, including WWF International. The dotcom aids in promoting an assortment of drives and campaigns with the use of its website and social media channels. Often, Africam will devote advertising and article space to help build support for a specific cause. Additionally, the website will distribute this information through Facebook, Twitter and email to the Africam community, who then spread the word via social media.

The Cameras

Africam is equipped with many features including live wildlife cameras, live sounds from the African wild, and areas to chat and blog about animal-related topics. Daily wildlife articles are also available on the website, along with video highlights so users never miss any of the action.

The site provides a unique opportunity to learn about and connect with animals on a whole new level. Simply by choosing a camera, one can be transported into the great African bush, a world where animals and nature reign supreme.

The website’s various cameras allow users to view live footage of African wildlife in their natural habitats. All of the cameras are strategically placed near popular watering holes in protected areas of southern Africa.

The Nkorho Pan and Elephant Plains cameras are located in the Sabi Sands, a private game reserve bordering Kruger National Park. This area is regarded as the best location for leopard sightings in all of Africa.

In KwaZulu Natal, a territory flanked by the warm Indian Ocean, the Tembe camera is positioned in a region with a high concentration of elephants. As a result, the Tembe has captured footage of some of the largest elephants in the world.

Africam’s most recently added camera, the Idube, is also located on the border of Kruger National Park. This camera faces a large watering hole where many different animal species call home.

The Share Your Snapshot feature has allowed Africam to become more mainstream among social media users. The function was created as a result of people using various types of software to take pictures of their sightings and, in turn, uploading them to Facebook.

These instances of user innovation inspired Penzhorn and his team to revamp Africam’s cameras. With the Share your Snapshot feature, the viewer is now able to take pictures of on-screen wildlife through the website itself. One can then share the snapshot via social media or save it to a computer. By making it easier for users to take pictures and share them, Africam’s content became social.

Unparalleled footage and images have been captured on these wildlife cameras. A bull elephant enjoying a mud bath, an African fish eagle perched on a branch, and a giraffe dining on tree leaves are just a few of the many candid scenes that connect viewers to the African wild.

The liaison that Africam has created between society and African animals sparked the beginning of a worldwide movement that is bringing awareness to the illegal animal trade.

WWF and Kill the Trade

Kill the Trade is a campaign created by WWF that pledges to end wildlife trafficking on a global scale. By bringing awareness of the illegal animal trade to the public, WWF hopes lawmakers will increase animal trafficking regulation, impose stricter deterrents and help reduce demand for threatened species products.

With the Tembe camera showing some of the biggest elephants on earth, Africam is the perfect catalyst for the Kill the Trade campaign. As a result, WWF and Africam joined forces to help spread the message by means of social media.

Through Africam’s Share Your Snapshot feature, social media users are taking wildlife snapshots and sharing them with family and friends to show support for Kill the Trade. Users also have the option to be alerted when animals appear on screen, so they will never miss that perfect share-worthy shot.

To help increase support for the campaign, WWF tweets to over 850,000 Twitter followers when there is an elephant on the Tembe camera. Users can then share these images, which include the #killthetrade logo and the message “Illegal wildlife trade threatens elephants, rhinos, and tigers” at the top of each photo taken. These alerts have created more exposure to the movement through social media.

Supporters can also fully customise their Facebook and Twitter pages to help promote Kill the Trade. Twibbons with the #killthetrade logo can be added to profile pictures, and a majestic elephant herd with the message “Kill the Trade that Kills the Elephant” can be a Facebook cover. Widgets, prewritten tweets, posts and emails are also provided on the campaign’s website.

Via Kill the Trade’s social-media-driven campaign, more people are aware of the importance of animal conservation and the need to stop wildlife trafficking once and for all. Through the beginning of 2013, a crucial hyperlink to a groundbreaking WWF petition was strewn among the images, posts, tweets and emails of the social media movement, asking people to take that extra step. Hundreds of thousands eagerly signed the petition urging Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to take a stand and ban the Thai ivory trade.

The Petition and the Thai Market

On 27 February 2013, World Wildlife Fund representatives personally delivered the global petition calling for the ban of the Thai ivory trade to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The petition was presented with more than 500,000 signatures from over 200 countries and territories along with a personal appeal from actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio.

In Thailand, legal ivory from Thai elephants, including captive elephants and elephants that die of natural causes, can be bought and sold domestically. Furthermore, ivory collected before the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ivory ban is fair game. There are just 67 vendors authorised to sell ivory in Thailand, yet surveys have found the coveted item in more than 250 shops. Many believe the legal ivory market is used by criminals to mask the prosperous ivory black market.

Thailand is a key destination where illegal ivory from Africa is laundered into the Thai legal market and sent to other areas including China, perhaps the world’s largest ivory market. Approximately 1.3 million African elephants were alive in 1979, yet currently there are only around 400,000 still in existence. In addition, as few as 2500 wild elephants are left in Thailand, and these numbers are dwindling rapidly.

The ivory market is booming, and lack of government regulation is promoting the industry’s growth. The petition calling for the ban of the Thai ivory trade could not have come at a more urgent and necessary time for change. The public responded – 500,000 strong – with a demand for reform that could not be disregarded.

Looking Ahead

On 3 March 2013, Shinawatra publically pledged to end Thailand’s domestic ivory trade once and for all. She made her announcement in Bangkok at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties on the event’s opening day. The time and place chosen to debut this news could not be more significant. This two-week meeting consisting of the 178 nations that form CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is the largest wildlife conference in the world.

Until now, Thailand has never publically committed to ending its domestic ivory market. During her speech, Shinawatra promised to amend national legislation that allegedly includes loopholes allowing foreign ivory to be smuggled into the domestic market. Her ultimate goal is to completely abolish Thailand’s ivory trade and to be in accordance with international norms. Changing Thai laws, which currently violate international regulations set by CITES, would also eliminate the possibility of trade sanctions against the South-East Asian country.

Before this wildlife meeting, conservation groups were insisting that CITES punish Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo for not properly regulating the illegal ivory trade.

Shinawatra’s announcement is a colossal step in the right direction in the fight against wildlife crime. However, due to the urgency of the situation, critics were disappointed by the vagueness and the lack of timeline given in regards to the Prime Minister’s statements. WWF is encouraging its supporters to stay united to ensure this promise becomes a reality.

Conclusion

Penzhorn says: “Africam wants to help the people who are trying to make a difference in African wildlife conservation get the exposure and support they need and deserve. There are so many organisations working toward a common goal, and Africam hopes to be the glue that binds them all together.”

Africam, WWF and other organisations involved have made an impact on the war against wildlife trafficking through their creative use of social media to spread the Kill the Trade message. By allowing the public to see the beauty of the African wild and to share that beauty with family and friends, the illegal animal trade is no longer just a distant problem. The illicit poaching of wildlife has become an issue at the forefront that is too big to ignore.