The ivory trade is a multibillion-dollar industry, ranking alongside drugs, arms and human trafficking as one of the world’s most lucrative markets. By 2015, the slaughter of elephants for their ivory had taken them near the tipping point into extinction.
Previous efforts to save the elephant had not been working fast enough. So wildlife charity WildAid and Grey London decided to change the focus of campaigning to distribution – to achieve a total ban on the ivory trade. The ultimate target audience was MEPs, MPs, members of governments and the United Nations; they alone had the power to sign the legislation.
Despite zero marketing or media budget, the message spread virally: two billion people were reached, 500 million included in a virtual supporters’ network and three million took action. Evidence of that support was provided to legislators – in public, in person and in numbers.
Within nine months, a UN resolution to shut down the ivory trade was agreed. By the end of 2016, even China – the world’s biggest ivory market – had announced its timetable for a total ban on the trade.
The elephant has been given a lifeline. But how was this achieved?
No scale or clear demands
Hundreds of NGOs were involved in this issue. Many were small, local and focused on conservation. Individually, they lacked the scale and political capabilities needed to influence international legislators.
Few had more than 50,000 social-media followers and each had its own leadership, agenda and funding to promote. As a result, legislators either ignored recommendations or lacked clear action to take. This gave the campaign its strategic plan: to establish clear demand, build scale and call for action.
Getting the message through to Cites (the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) in September 2016 was the end goal. Cites involves 183 countries coming together every three years to make decisions about endangered species.
The big idea was #JoinTheHerd: one global pressure group, one campaign, one agenda – creating scale
The big idea
The campaign had nine months to make elephants the top priority at the convention, and legislators needed to see scale – in other words, huge numbers of voters supporting an issue – as well as clear demands showing a consensus on the right action.
What was needed was a virtual campaign and organisation for everyone opposed to the ivory trade to rally behind.
The big idea was #JoinTheHerd: one global pressure group, one campaign, one agenda. One hashtag uniting disparate NGOs, global influencers and the mass public to give the clarity and scale needed to bring about the change in legislation. By giving #JoinTheHerd to everyone, Grey London and WildAid created a campaign that any organisation or person supporting the cause could be part of – creating scale.
They then set up a central campaigning hub, linked to the hashtag, which collected all sign-ups, plus their contacts and data, via any available recruitment path.
Initially, people were simply invited to #JoinTheHerd to stop the ivory trade. An "elephant selfie"-creator was linked to social media from a landing page, while a campaign page offered shareable images, advice on how to share the campaign on social media, a way to sign up to the Ivory Free pledge, a tool for users to create their own poster and a link to the main WildAid site for deeper involvement.
Tuning in to cultural moments
Chinese New Year, February 2016: Year of the Elephant
China is ivory’s biggest market and Chinese New Year is the country’s biggest cultural event. The campaign hijacked the occasion, asking supporters to make 2016 the "Year of the Elephant".
Celebrities, including basketball player Yao Ming, chatshow host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres and actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Lupita Nyong’o, launched The Elephant Selfie and invited everyone to #JoinTheHerd.
NGOs rated Chinese New Year the most successful public anti-ivory campaign ever, with 310 million impressions achieved globally in two weeks. This success attracted a coalition of influential NGOs.
Alexander Rhodes, chief executive of NGO Stop Ivory, says: "#JoinTheHerd and Grey formed a powerful brand under which NGOs and the public could amplify their shared voices in the fight to save elephants."
Kenya’s Ivory Burn, April 2016
By April 2016, #JoinTheHerd was at the heart of the debate at The Giants Club Summit – a biennial event for African political and business leaders, influencers and wildlife-protection experts, aimed at combating elephant poaching. The inaugural event in 2016 decided on the resolution to be proposed at Cites.
The Kenyan government showed its support by burning 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory. #JoinTheHerd turned this spectacle into a global campaigning event. It was broadcast in China via Weibo/WeChat and the NetEase platform, while a network of 200,000 WPP employees was harnessed to recruit and mobilise "the herd" and virtually attend the ivory burning.
Mobilising to demand action
Progress had been made, transforming a disparate landscape of NGOs into a single › shared campaign, with a clear, deliverable point of action. Social-media activities created a virtual network, reaching an audience of 500 million. The activity up to this point had achieved two billion further broadcast-media impressions (according to Meltwater). Now it was time to focus on legislators.
In the run-up to Cites itself, the campaign mobilised its supporter network and NGO coalition partners to pile on the pressure.
Environmental and conservation charity Tusk, a #JoinTheHerd partner, organised events with legislators in the UK, South Africa and Japan to win support.
Other activity included emailing supporters, posting social messages to its 500-million-strong network, and amplifying the #JoinTheHerd messages of its coalition partners. At the same time, Grey created a Snapchat filter and stepped up coverage through social.
Another NGO coalition partner, GMFER (the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos), organised events in 148 cities worldwide. Collective promotion resulted in hundreds of thousands of protesters coming together.
As Rosemary Alles, strategist and co-founder at GMFER, says: "It would be difficult to argue that our very loud, passionate and disciplined presence [at the Johannesburg march] on the opening day of Cites, in front of the Sandton Convention Center [where Cites17 was held] did not make a difference."
Supporters were also re-engaged through new hub features. These included a call-to-action film and a simple vote to stop the trade (which garnered 3.1 million votes). There was also a feature that enabled people to direct pre-written tweets to world leaders, while UK residents could email their local MP a letter directly from the website, which ended up triggering 2,642 missives.
The scale of support to legislators was demonstrated by commissioning the world’s biggest survey on attitudes surrounding the ivory trade, conducted by TNS. The survey was run across 10 key target countries, and questioned 10,000 adults, with the populations of the countries involved totalling 695.1 million people.
The results showed that an overwhelming 80% supported the demand to stop the trade, with the majority believing that the trade was already banned – putting even more pressure on legislators to support the cause.
The results were handed in person to UK MPs and Defra, and sent out by all partners to the virtual network and broadcast media. The survey’s findings continue to be quoted by MPs in the UK Parliament.
At Cites itself, the results of the survey were handed out to attendees, presented at side events and displayed on poster sites.
Thanks to the pressure, for the first time, the subject of elephants was top of the agenda at Cites (24 September-6 October 2016). Four resolutions committed member states to banning the ivory trade. Demand for ivory subsequently fell: by November 2016, the price of ivory had dropped by half as it became more socially unacceptable. Then, on 30 December 2016, China announced its timetable to end the domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.
There could be no better end to the Year of the Elephant.
Experts in the field confirmed the difference that #JoinTheHerd had made, highlighting the many constituent parts of the campaign.
Rhodes says: "As Cites approached, in commissioning the largest-ever survey into public opinion of the ivory trade, Grey gave us concrete proof of the overwhelming public support for the closure of ivory markets right across Europe. Being able to articulate the weight of this public opinion is critical and it simply can’t be ignored."
Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, adds that the campaign succeeded "in a way no campaign had before, sewing together a patchwork quilt of groups and messages to create a single, powerful voice".
Rice concludes: "It helped ensure that by the time Cites came around, the world was watching and waiting to see how politicians would act. Elephants were, justifiably, high up the agenda and their fate could no longer be sealed by compromise deals. #JoinTheHerd made sure decision-makers were held to account and gave us all a common weapon to fight back with."
The fight goes on
The #JoinTheHerd case was built on the four Cites resolutions that committed member states to banning the ivory trade. We continue to fight to make sure these commitments become law around the world to ensure the closure of all domestic ivory markets.
In the UK, we are moving toward a ban on ivory. Environment secretary Michael Gove announced in October 2017 the government’s intention to introduce a total ban on ivory sales, with a three-month consultation period.
We campaigned to push the ban through with minimum exemptions. This was a joint effort between Grey, Kantar TNS, Lexington Public Affairs, our NGO coalition partners (WildAid, Stop Ivory, EIA, ZSL, Tusk, WCS, Ifaw, BFF, NRDC and DSWT) and our legal consultants (Mishcon de Reya, 20 Essex Street Chambers and Blackstone Chambers).
To support this, we commissioned a further Kantar TNS Poll that demonstrated overwhelming support for an ivory ban. It found that 85% of the public supported a ban on UK ivory sales, while 57% said there should be no exemptions to the ban.
The poll led to substantial media coverage, including in The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, the London Evening Standard and the Daily Mirror.
We produced record response rates from a call for mass lobbying by supporters, through the use of easy, click-to-submit, pre-formatted responses to the government, Facebook advertising to drive people toward the pre-formatted response and tweets that had been drafted for NGO partners and celebrity supporters to do the same.
The government received 72,000 responses to the consultation in total, with, we believe, our activity generating about 39,000 of those. As a result, ministers are poised to introduce a blanket ban on the sale of ivory in Britain, quoting "overwhelming" public backing.
On a three-day visit to China this February, the prime minister Theresa May spoke to Chinese officials about joint efforts to stamp out the international ivory trade and went on to announce a co-operative deal between the UK and China to tackle the trade.
Ahead of the London 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in October this year, the two countries will pledge to share their expertise in this area with countries in the southern African region.
Legislators used the #JoinTheHerd materials and campaign in political discourse, such as during the UK parliamentary debate about implementing a total ban on ivory in the UK.
On 31 January 2018, Hong Kong lawmakers voted unanimously to ban ivory sales. The vote came just one month after China shut down all commercial processing and sales of ivory at the end of 2017. Both WildAid and EIA’s contributions were cited by lawmakers in the legislative debate prior to the vote. This five-year campaign culminated in:
• There was a collaboration with an Avaaz petition that resulted in one million signatures.
• An extensive social-media campaign was run with WildAid ambassador, actress and singer Li Bingbing.
• A full-page ad ran in the Oriental Daily News, Hong Kong’s biggest newspaper, on the day of the vote, telling legislators that the future of elephants was in their hands.
• Thousands petitioned lawmakers via social media and protested as legislators voted.
Ivory prices in Hong Kong have now dropped precipitously. From a high of HK$16,400 per kilo in 2014, the price has now slumped to HK$6,000 per kilo of pre-Convention ivory with paperwork, or HK$3,000 per kilo for black market smuggled ivory from recently killed elephants.
We will continue working with our coalition of NGO partners to stop the ivory trade in Japan. Indeed, we are already planning a campaign with WildAid specifically for the Japanese market.
"#JoinTheHerd gave people all over the world a chance to show their support for an end to the ivory trade through social media and activism," Peter Knights, chief executive and founder of WildAid, says. "It’s a rolling campaign that we can now take to the only remaining major legal ivory market – Japan."
We also aim to achieve a total ivory ban within the EU. The imminent UK ban and the forthcoming Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference will provide further lobbying opportunities.
Reflecting on #JoinTheHerd’s achievements, Rhodes says it was able to pile on the pressure by "growing public awareness and engagement and recruiting celebrity support".
He adds: "#JoinTheHerd and Grey formed a powerful brand under which NGOs and the public could amplify their shared voices in the fight to save elephants. It was, and continues to be, a clarion call for legislative change to close domestic ivory markets."