Every day of the year, on average, another one of the world’s most beautiful wild creatures — a tiger — is killed illegally for its skin and body parts. The magnificent hide goes into gruesome adornments such as rugs and wall hangings, while the body parts, including bones, are ground up and sold for folk medicine. Although tigers have roamed the earth for more than two million years, such senseless slaughter has brought them to the point of extinction. Although loss of habitat has accounted for some of the steep decline, illegal poaching and trade in body parts are the major culprits.
The plight of the tiger and of other endangered creatures such as the elephant, the bear, the marine turtle, and the rhinoceros inspired a London School of Economics graduate named Peter Knights to leave his building and interior design business in 1988 when he was 24 and to become what he calls an "undercover ecologist". On his own limited resources he set out to investigate and film the illegal slaughter and sale of endangered wildlife species in more than a dozen countries, often at considerable personal risk. His target: an army of ruthless poachers and traffickers who violate international laws in pursuit of that trade, valued today at US$6 billion a year. In the years that followed, Knights criss-crossed the world on behalf of endangered creatures of all kinds. None was too small to enlist his help. In Africa in 1993 he conducted an undercover investigation of the illegal trade in African grey parrots in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Within a year or two his findings and the subsequent publicity resulted in international control of the trade.
Not content with merely exposing such practices, Knights founded two international organizations to combat them. The first was the Global Survival Network in 1995, followed by the Asian Conservation Awareness Programme, in 1996. His work with both organizations, especially the latter, earned him the title of Associate Laureate in the 1998 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Knights approaches the problem of illegal trade in endangered species as an economic as well as a moral challenge. On the Asian market, major product demand includes tiger bones, rhino horn, and bear gall for traditional remedies, elephant tusk for ivory carvings, marine turtle shell for jewellery, and bear paw and tiger penis soup as delicacies.
Spreading the Message
To carry his message worldwide Knights approached the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. The agency generously donated its services in producing a number of video commercials condemning the illegal wildlife trade. The agency also came up with a memorable slogan: "When the buying stops, the killing can, too!" With a long-time Taiwanese colleague, Rebecca Chen, Knights chose Taiwan’s capital of Taipei for his first public awareness campaign. Success was immediate. Some 25,000 Taiwanese turned out for "awareness day" at the Taipei Zoo. There they viewed Knights’ graphic footage of illegal poaching and sale of illicit body parts. With the blessing of the Taiwanese Government, buses in Taipei displayed the message on posters emblazoned along their sides. Every major newspaper offered free advertising space, and the anti-poaching commercials were broadcast regularly on television.
The results of the campaign exceeded the wildest hopes of Knights and his colleagues. A random survey at the end revealed that nearly one out of every five Taiwanese had seen and remembered the television commercials. Among 200 such viewers, 155 declared that they would never again consume wild animal products. Taking the figures as a sample, Knights concluded that the campaign had reached and influenced several million Taiwanese. From Taiwan, Knights turned to a broader stage, aiming eventually at all of Asia. His next stop was Hong Kong, where he encountered an enthusiastic ally — Jackie Chan of Kung Fu fame, one of Asia’s most popular and admired film stars. "When I saw Peter’s footage," Chan says, "tears came to my eyes." Chan was so moved that he offered to include Knights’ powerful slogan, "When the buying stops, the killing can, too!" in the script of a forthcoming movie.
While Knights applauds the work of other wildlife conservation groups, he feels the efforts are in vain unless the demand for endangered species is addressed. "Most organisations seek to protect wildlife through preservation of their habitat — with wildlife preserves, refuges, sanctuaries, and hunting laws," he says. "The aim is to restrict the supply of animals to the market, and of course that’s very important. But we focus on the market itself, to try to eliminate demand, which is the real key."
Published in 1998