Can celebrities save the pangolin?

Wednesday 4th Nov 2020, 12.03pm

‘Influencers’ are here like never before…log on to social media, and there will be someone there to tell you what to cook or what to wear…But what about when it comes to wildlife conservation? For instance, how much impact can a celebrity have when it comes to saving an endangered species? In this episode of the Oxford Sparks Big Questions Podcast, we’re asking zoologist Alegria Olmedo “Can celebrities save the pangolin?”

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Emily Elias:   Influencer culture is at an all-time high. From athletic wear to cleaning products, but what about when it comes to a good cause, like wildlife conservation? Does having a footballer post about saving the black rhino, well, actually do anything? On this episode of the Oxford Sparks Big Questions Podcast, we’re going to be talking about the internet, celebrities and animals, and asking: can celebrities save the pangolin?

Hello, I’m Emily Elias, and this is the show where we seek out the brightest minds at the University of Oxford, and we ask them the big questions. And for this one we have reached a researcher that is digging deep into her social media feeds.

Alegria Olmedo: My name is Alegria Olmedo, I’m currently a researcher at the University of Oxford in the Department of Zoology.

Emily: What is a pangolin? Am I even saying that correctly?

Alegria: Yes, pangolin, yes. So, pangolins are the world’s only mammal that is completely covered in scales. They are anteaters, so they have no teeth, and a really long, sticky tongue, because they eat ants and termites.

Emily: What made you fall in love with this animal? Because, to me, they kind of look scary.

Alegria: A little bit. They almost look like a t-rex, I think, sometimes. They definitely look to me like something from prehistoric times. But I was first working in Vietnam, about seven years ago, and I had never heard of them, I had never seen a picture or anything. And, in Vietnam, I came across them when I was reading news articles and I was working in conservation at the time, so they came up.

And already, at that point, they were already threatened, especially the species that are native to Vietnam, and there were already pretty high rates of consumption and of trade for their meat and scales particularly. And it just seemed crazy to me that they weren’t getting, you know, as much attention as the cool, charismatic species like tigers and elephants and rhinos, when it seemed like they were just as threatened as the others.

Emily: Alegria, or, Ale for short [pronounciation: Ally], says that when she was there it wasn’t like you would go into a restaurant and pick up a menu and you would see the daily pangolin special, it was way more on the down low.

Alegria: So, I never saw them being advertised or people consuming them. I have seen scales in traditional medicine shops, and they are labelled as, yes, just as pangolin scales, but they are not sold as openly because they are illegal. So, it’s not as open, and recently there has been a lot of efforts by conservation NGOs with different campaigns, and different awareness-raising messages about the illegality of this, and then linking the consumption of pangolins to their extinction in the wild. So, because there has been so much attention it’s kind of pushed it even more underground than it already was.

Emily: And with all of these campaigns to try and save them, there was one campaign that particularly caught her eye. And because of the power of podcasting, I will describe it to you: you have three CGI-d pangolins that are learning self-defence from none other than martial arts master and actor, Jackie Chan.

Jackie Chan: Up to now, pangolins only defence from poachers was to roll up into a ball. But now all species are protected by law.

Emily: This ad is wild for a lot of reasons. First off, it’s employed the visual artists from the film Life of Pi, you know the one with the tiger and the boat? Yes. And also, it’s in English, not Vietnamese or Mandarin or a local language. And Ale says there aren’t many native English speakers that are in the market for pangolin meat.

Alegria: What’s crazy about a lot of these campaigns that I’ve seen is that they are in English, so local people have to read the subtitles and it just doesn’t seem to make sense that you would have an advertisement, or a public service announcement, in a different language from where you’re implementing it.

Emily: And this Jackie Chan ad, well, it isn’t the only one. There are similar conservation projects in Asia that feature people like David Beckham and Prince William, and so, Ale thought to herself, “Okay, I want to try and evaluate this, and see how effective these celebrity endorsements actually are.” So, she got cosy with her computer, and rounded up a team of readers, and they all began the task of a literary review.

Alegria: Oh my God, it was so difficult to go through all of the different articles, because how these reviews work is that they have to be done systematically. So, if anybody wanted to redo them, they could. So, first of all we had to keep track of absolutely everything we were doing. So, we came up with a search in English of the things that we wanted to find, then we had to translate that to the five other languages, and then everybody had to start searching in the same platforms at around the same time.

But of course, some of the databases had a character limit, so then we had to figure out how to divide them, and then, of course, when you first search for something, for example in Google Scholar, you get thousands and thousands and thousands of articles. So, we had to develop a strategy where, first everybody just screened the title of every article, and because it was the words ‘celebrity’, and ‘famous people’, and ‘superstars’ in our searches, just to get as much as possible, there were some things that were completely, completely random.

So, just by reading the title you could say, like, “No, this is not going to fit our criteria.” But still, like, you know, reading 8000 titles is just horrible and so boring. And then once you get the title, say, that you chose to include, even 3000 titles, then you have to read the abstract of every single one of them, and still, you know, reading thousands of abstracts, it’s brutal.

And in English we only ended up reviewing a little bit over 100, I think, and in Spanish there were very few. So, we only reviewed two full articles. But this was a gruelling process, that’s why it took us months. And of course, I couldn’t do it in every language because I don’t speak six languages, so I had to coordinate with my different reviewers in different languages, but it is pretty, pretty tedious work, I’m not going to lie.

Emily: And after all of that eye-numbing work, the results were this: they found 79 campaigns implemented in nine countries between 1976 and 2018. In total, 181 celebrities endorsed these campaigns, and what she found was that there was a big black hole of information.

Alegria: And what I found, actually, was that very few of these campaigns are being evaluated, and even those that are, the evaluation is pretty big and doesn’t actually show that the outcome of the campaign can be attributed to the celebrity. So, we are in a situation where we don’t actually know, like, maybe it would be more helpful to use different messengers depending on what products you’re talking about, like maybe celebrities are not the most effective. There could be someone who is better, or maybe celebrities are having no impact at all, but unless we evaluate this, we won’t know if they are effective or not.

Emily: Because it does kind of seem like a marketing no-brainer that you would get a big name and attach it to a project or a campaign and obviously it would get attention. Is there any indication that it actually works and changes people’s behaviour?

Alegria: Why we are willing to be evaluating the campaigns, it is a messenger of course, but it’s also the message itself. Because if the message is not that prevalent, you know, if it’s only a certain group of people who are consuming it, or consuming pangolin products, and it’s not that well known of a behaviour in the population, having messages everywhere that say, “Stop consuming pangolins, people are eating pangolins,” some people who didn’t know about this, they might be like, “Oh, I didn’t realise I could go and buy a pangolin, I’m going to give that a try,” you know? It could accidentally advertise for the behaviour that people are actually trying to convince people not to do.

So, we really need to be careful because there may be adverse effects that are actually even worse for the species we’re trying to conserve.

Emily: And so, Ale has got an idea. She wants to do a fully open and transparent celebrity endorsement study. One that shows what worked, what didn’t work, and whether it actually had any impact on saving the pangolins.

Alegria: In the last two years I worked with a local Vietnamese NGO called Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, together we have collected data to estimate the prevalence of consumption of pangolin products in Ho Chi Minh city, and then we followed this up with more in depth research to understand the consumption of pangolin meat. And then through this social research we identified five celebrities using the same principles that they do in marketing, and the same models.

So, five celebrities that could resonate with our target audience, and then later this year I’ll be conducting focus groups to understand which of these five celebrities could be effective in influencing my target audience behaviour. So, I think the only way to fill in these gaps is to actually conduct research and test what has already been learned from other fields, apply it to conservation, apply it to a case study, and then once you have the information at the end, whether it worked or not, and what steps you followed. You have to disseminate it, and make it available for people, for NGOs, for other researchers ,so everyone can use those findings and build on top of that.

Emily: Okay, so you’ve got a top five of who you think would be good. What are the qualities or characteristics that would make them a good campaigner to save the pangolins?

Alegria: First of all, that they are credible, and that means that they are trustworthy, so people believe in what they say and that they have expertise in the topic. So, in this case it would be someone who fits the image of someone who consumes wild meat, because if there is someone completely different then it would never be believable that they know anything about the topic, or that their opinion should matter.

Emily: So, Brad Pitt is out?

Alegria: Yes, Brad Pitt is out, yes, exactly! So, that was actually the problem. There was a campaign with Prince William, talking about rhino horn in Vietnam, like, would Prince William ever be in a situation where he is offered rhino horn? Probably not, he hasn’t grown up in a culture or in a tradition where rhino horn would ever be a medicine that is there or a luxury product that he was considering buying, never.

So, there is that massive disconnect. Then the celebrity, someone who is obviously well known by the target audience, that they are familiar with. There is still an aspirational component, where the celebrity is someone whose behaviour… the target audience wants to emulate their behaviour.

Emily: This way, Ale can finally have some clues as to whether or not a celebrity name actually makes a difference when you’re trying to save a little guy like a pangolin.

So, we don’t know if Jackie Chan has actually saved any pangolins?

Alegria: We do not know, no, sadly no, we don’t know.

Emily: This podcast was brought to you by Oxford Sparks from the University of Oxford, with music by John Lyons and a special thanks to Ale Olmedo. And stay tuned to see who her big celebrity spokesperson will be, dun dun dun. And if you like this podcast, tell a buddy, tell a friend, tweet us @OxfordSparks or find us on Facebook, Instagram or any social media channel. We’ve got a lot of cool stuff, and we have a website, I’m Emily Elias. Bye for now.