With rampant poaching threatening the survival of Africa’s rhinos, an all-star team of Chinese celebrities and global wildlife ambassadors led by Sir Richard Branson is speaking out against the sale of rhino horn — by chewing on their own fingernails.
Why? Rhino horn is primarily made of keratin, a protein also found in human nails and hair. In recent years, international criminal syndicates who peddle rhino horn in countries such as China and Vietnam have marketed the product as a medicinal panacea when ground into powder form and ingested. Such uses include a recreational drug, an aphrodisiac and even a cancer cure.
The celebrities in the new Mandarin- and English-language campaign from African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid put to rest such claims. “Keratin. That’s all it is. No different or more a medical remedy than your fingernails,” WildAid ambassador Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group, said of rhino horn. “So with a dwindling rhino population, why kill off one of our planet’s greatest species for no reason?”
Mr. Branson is joined in the new campaign by Vietnamese-American actress and WildAid Wildlife Champion of the Year Maggie Q; Li Bingbing, China’s top actress; and Chinese celebrities such as actor/singer Jing Boran, fashion photographer Chen Man and actor Chen Kun.
“Rhino horn won’t cure cancer or a headache, but the rhino poaching epidemic in Africa does have a cure, and it involves people not buying rhino horn,” said Dr. Patrick Bergin, African Wildlife Foundation CEO. “Sir Richard and other campaign celebrities are delivering the message, and now we need citizens in China and Vietnam to be part of the solution.”
A Vietnamese version of the “Nail Biters” campaign starring some of the nation’s biggest celebrities is also underway. Vietnam is the world’s largest rhino horn market and the focus of a multiyear effort by African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid to educate consumers and persuade them not to buy, gift or consume rhino horn.
In China, Mandarin-language campaign ads are already on display in Beijing Capital International Airport as well as a towering billboard in Chonqing’s Central Square, seen by tens of thousands of people daily. WildAid has secured additional, extensive billboard space in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, while PSAs will be broadcasted on several national TV networks and video screens in bullet trains. The campaign will also be heavily promoted via Chinese social media networks.
“Rhino horn’s luxury cache among a privileged few is the root cause of the poaching crisis raging in Africa,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “This campaign seeks to deflate rhino horn’s allure and expose it for what it is: fraud.”
In 2012, WildAid and African Wildlife Foundation launched the “Say No to Rhino Horn” campaign in partnership with the Vietnamese nonprofit organization CHANGE to reduce rhino horn demand in China and Vietnam, the world’s leading consumers of rhino horn. The campaign has three primary goals: raise awareness of the rhino-poaching crisis, support Vietnamese lawmakers in strengthening enforcement efforts and measurably reduce demand for rhino horn.
WildAid has leveraged its extensive pro bono media network in Asia, which in 2014 was worth nearly $200 million in donated airtime from media partners, to bring this message to millions of people each week, using influential ambassadors such as artists, CEOs and doctors, as well as international ambassadors such as the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), David Beckham, Yao Ming and Sir Richard Branson. The campaign uses strategies from previous WildAid campaigns that have shown measurable results in reducing consumer demand for wildlife products such as shark fin.
Studies show the campaign is yielding results in China: According to surveys conducted by an independent research firm, the percentage of those who believe that rhino horn has medicinal effects has dropped by nearly a quarter, from 58% percent in 2012 to 45% percent in 2014. About half of the Chinese public knows that rhinos are killed for their horns, a 52% percent increase in awareness since 2012.
Mr. Branson has been an active ambassador for rhino conservation, both globally and in China and Vietnam. In September 2015, he hosted a dinner in Ho Chi Minh City with some of Vietnam’s top CEOs, all who signed a pledge in which they committed to never buy, use or gift rhino horn. “Listening to 25 of the country's leading entrepreneurs around the table, I quickly learned how much the issue has already become part of a national conversation — one that has caused great embarrassment for a country of 90 million people that is rapidly entering the global market,” Branson wrote of the event.
“But change is difficult to come by, stifled by a lack of interest in conservation issues and also by insufficient enforcement. On the upside, as I learned over dinner, younger Vietnamese seem to understand the seriousness of the problem and no longer wish to be associated with these harmful habits,” Branson wrote.
In 2014, over 1,200 rhinos were killed in South Africa, which has the highest concentration of the species left on the planet. Early estimates on 2015 poaching numbers indicate that the crisis continues.