Q&A with Vian Sharif: Reducing Demand for the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Ms. Vian Sharif, a PhD candidate who is studying ways to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products. Image © Vian Sharif.

Introduction

I am seriously excited about this Q&A. Vian Sharif is a truly fascinating individual whom I first learned about through United for Wildlife’s free, online course: Introducing Conservation.

Ms. Sharif is currently a PhD candidate at the Imperial College of London and Imperial College Business School. She is studying behavior change in the context of the illegal wildlife trade, with an emphasis on how to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products.

Ms. Sharif has authored or coauthored at least two excellent publications: Analysis of Conservation Interventions Aimed at Reducing Demand for Traded Wildlife in China and Vietnam, and Evaluating the Design of Behavior Change Interventions: A Case Study of Rhino Horn in Vietnam. The former synthesizes a great deal of information about the demand for products made from tigers, elephants, pangolins, and rhinos. It is a great resource for learning about the illegal wildlife trade, and I have written a brief review of it here.

The cover of Analysis of Conservation Interventions, featuring a pangolin. This work is by Alfred Weidinger and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

But what first drew me to Ms. Sharif was that, like me, her background is not in wildlife biology. Her first major line of work was in communications and media relations for some of the world’s biggest luxury brands. I was intrigued by her story, and consequently sent her a brief list of questions. Her responses are below.

Q&A

How did you become so passionate about conservation, and more specifically the illegal wildlife trade?

Whilst it may sound unusual, I would credit my work in industry, and the commitment to conservation of the senior leaders I’ve met in industry, with opening the door to what is possible in conservation. From my first trip to Kenya, which was part of our corporate social responsibility activities, I was given an opportunity to visit some of the world’s most beautiful and threatened wild places.

From my perspective, the illegal wildlife trade encompasses three areas that fascinate me. First, the role of business in creating positive change; secondly, the complexity of its dynamics; and finally, the powerful emotional response I have to the consummate beauty of nature – to which I believe a number of other people relate.

Vian Sharif with a rhino calf. Image © Vian Sharif.

You said in one of Introducing Conservation’s videos that, “Global brands are such an amazing platform for communicating these [conservation] issues to people…” What makes global brands such effective platforms?

In my view, in many cases global brands are aspirational in relation to the buyer or observer – almost alchemical. They’ve demonstrated a capacity to transcend borders, and to be greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not only their product that entices the customer, it’s about how the buyer feels when they buy; and how their brand values resonate with the buyer emotionally.

For me, the value of these brands rests in their power to motivate individuals to buy into their brand promise, sometimes at great cost, and identify with the attributes that are then conferred on the buyer. Add to this the marketing, PR, and incredibly powerful communications strategies which are behind the dissemination of the brand’s message, and you have a powerful cocktail of emotional engagement with the consumer and influential communications machine.

This is a compelling platform for any message. If it’s a message that can generate positive outcomes around a campaign with real meaning, then there’s a chance that this message will be heard.

Last question. What advice would you give to someone who wants to become more involved in conservation, but does not have a background in biology or the environmental sciences?

Refreshingly, I find that conservation is a discipline that is increasingly open to harnessing the insights and skills of those from other backgrounds or sectors. We live in an interconnected world: the inspirational individuals I’ve had the privilege of working with have shown me that the global challenges of today can be addressed from multiple perspectives.

You do not need to be a professional scientist to get involved in conservation or environmental stewardship. 070622-N-2143T-002 by the US Navy. Public domain.

For example, business now understands that it has a fundamentally important role in achieving the sustainable development goals. It’s all of us who can make a contribution.

There is so much we can learn from one another, and so many interrelated ways our work can help to catalyse positive change. If you’re inspired to get involved, as Robert Kennedy said, “In your hands lies the future of your world and the fulfillment of the best qualities of your own spirit.”

Conclusion

I would like to sincerely thank Ms. Sharif for participating in this Q&A. As she pointed out, you do not need to be a biologist to contribute towards conservation. If you love the natural world, then there are always ways to leverage your skills and resources to make a difference.

Further Reading:

Analysis of Conservation Interventions Aimed at Reducing Demand for Traded Wildlife in China and Vietnam – Vian Sharif

Evaluating the Design of Behavior Change Interventions: A Case Study of Rhino Horn in Vietnam – Alegria Olmedo, Vian Sharif, and E.J. Milner-Gulland

8 Thoughts

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