TRAFFIC’s Global Communications Co-ordinator Richard Thomas discusses Animal Trafficking and careers advice

Richard Thomas is responsible for all the outputs of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, a leading NGO working globally to combat illegal / unsustainable trade in animals and plants. All information they pass into the public domain and to many of their donors goes through Richard and he also oversees updates to the website and social media pages and acts as a contact point for Press and Media.  

As I understand you’ve taken a rather unconventional path into conservation, can you describe that path?

“It started when I was 6 years old and an old lady living across the road came by, knocked on the front door and said ‘I don’t know if you’re interested but there are some birds called waxwings just outside here’. I was absolutely bowled over by these things, they’re really attractive birds, and the experience got me hooked on birds and birdwatching. At school however, I was particularly good at chemistry. And even though my real passion was for birds, I somehow ended up pursuing chemistry instead. I guess it was the school’s career people, they said “well it’s going to be very difficult to get a job in biology, we recommend you take the chemistry path”. So, I followed that for perhaps a few more years than I should have done. I ended up going to university to study chemistry and carried on with a PhD in Norwich and followed that up with a post-doctoral research fellowship in Australia.”

Just a few more years then.

“While I was in Australia I made the most of the opportunity to travel around the country and see as many birds as I could and when my wife and I left to return home, we spent about a year birdwatching all the way back to the UK. After that I got an editing job with The Royal Society of Chemistry, so I learnt all the basics of good editing, how to thoroughly check facts and so on. But I still had this passion for birds so I became a voluntary council member of the Oriental Bird Club, and in my spare time edited their regular bulletin. Then I saw a job for BirdLife International asking for somebody to edit their quarterly magazine, World Birdwatch. Able to bring this editorial expertise and bird knowledge to the table, I was appointed and stayed for 8 years.”

Hooray!

“During that time, you could say there was a slight reluctance by some staff to talk to the media and so I ended up doing it by default. Eventually I saw a job in TRAFFIC which interested me, partly because I had been heavily involved with looking at bird flu and how it was transported around the world, and so I’d generated an interest in trade. This was an opportunity to carry on with that sort of work but broaden out to all forms of wildlife and also bring in more formally my media contacts and expertise… So that’s how I ended up as the global communication co-ordinator for TRAFFIC. I’m not sure a PhD in chemistry would be my recommendation for anybody looking to get into this particular area but that’s how I ended up here.”

That’s one way to go I suppose 

“You know it’s not un-heard of for people to have PhDs in completely unrelated fields and still work in conservation. I know somebody who’s a very senior conservationist and his PhD is actually in the writings of George Orwell!”

He must love Animal Farm.

Have you found any character traits particularly valuable or otherwise in your line of work?

“I would say It’s really important to stand out, having something a bit different. In my case it was bird knowledge which would appeal to BirdLife International but I know people who are world experts in pangolins for example. That said, you’ve got to be wary of over specialising and putting yourself into a niche where you’re not going to be sellable, but it’s a very strong selling point if you do have particular expertise that people can use. But it’s dammed hard. There are relatively few conservation jobs going and there are a lot of people interested in doing them. It’s a buyer’s market at the moment.”

Anything detrimental?

“If you’re not knowledgeable and you’re not passionate then I think inevitably it will count against you. You also need people who are at the right sort of engagement level.”

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

“Do you want a sensible answer because the thing I’ve probably bragged about the most is… I presume you are familiar with page 3 of the Sun?”

Absolutely not sir whatever are you insinuating…

“Well my proudest media moment I think was securing a little article about the discovery of a new bird species called the Bugun Liocichla, which is found in a tiny area of northeast India in Arunachal Pradesh. I wrote the press release with a chap called Ramana Athreya who made the discovery. We put it out to the world’s media and it got massive pick up—we’re talking front page of the New York Times, but the only piece of printed hard copy that he was keen to see was the piece on page 3 of The Sun! Now online, or in those days at least, they weren’t allowed to show the usual page 3 pictures so on that page it was the Bugun Liocichla but when I actually bought a few copies of the papers for Ramana, because I was going to see him out in India a few months later, it had the regular page 3 type picture and then on the side was a little post about the Bugun Liocichla with the caption ‘new bird from India, all the best birds are in the Sun!’.”

Maybe they confused babbler with booby

What role does social media play in the illegal animal trade?

“Well social media is used as a means of putting sellers in touch with buyers so we do quite a lot of monitoring for online trade. Initially a lot of such illegal wildlife trade was going on through open sites like eBay and Alibaba. So, it was relatively easy for people like myself to see what was going on and for authorities and the platforms themselves to take action against it. Now increasingly we are finding that a lot of the transactions are taking place through social media channels within closed groups, so closed Facebook groups, WeChat, Weibo etc. and it’s a real enforcement challenge. You can’t just get anybody signing up, or they have to at least go through a period of probation where the administrators of the groups will try and verify people who are bona fide interested in buying or selling the goods. So, it’s increasingly going under the radar. From that perspective, social media is a different avenue for transactions to take place and one that is very hard to monitor.”

Does the nature of the material you are continually presented with ever effect you personally? How do you deal with this potentially emotive aspect of the work?

“I think my personality is such that I can sort of blot it out, I try not to get too heavily emotionally involved that it upsets me. And hearing, on a daily basis, about another three rhinos being poached in South Africa, it’s almost like you get immune. With that said, there have been certain things which have happened that have been very upsetting. One of the people we worked closely with used to go around the markets and document wild elephant ivory and rhino horn illegally on sale. He was recently murdered in Kenya. And that really shook up a number of us because we knew him very well and spoke to him over many years. It doesn’t appear his murder was in any way related to the work he was carrying out.”

What does the death of the last northern white rhino male mean, given rhinos are one of TRAFFIC’s ‘key species’?

“Well the northern white rhino has been in a lot of strife for many years now, down to a handful of individuals which were obviously aging. It is a dreadful time when any species becomes extinct at the hands of human activities. The northern white is basically a victim of ongoing rebel activity and civil war, in DRC in particular. The bottom line is this is going to become more common in the future with a rapidly expanding human population. Our job is to try and mitigate some of the impacts of excessive demand for natural resources and try and ensure that as few extinctions as possible take place but we would be unrealistic to think we can prevent them all.”

In the years to come what do you think will be the most effective tool for combating illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade?

“About 6 or 7 years ago, we were talking with our colleagues at WWF and discussing the escalating amount of poaching going on of iconic animals, elephants and rhinos in particular, and we decided to run a joint illegal wildlife trade campaign to try and raise awareness at the highest political level because we perceived that you weren’t going to get real action unless you got their support. We drew up the plans with our ultimate goal being a United Nations general resolution on wildlife trafficking. We began the campaign and it created a huge amount of momentum and interest and I’m pleased to say that in July of 2015 the UN passed a general resolution, urging countries to address wildlife trafficking. But I do have a sense of frustration in that it hasn’t translated into massively declining poaching numbers. We’ve still not cracked how to turn those international commitments into action on the ground and it’s been a few years now where that’s been the case. So the big question is how are we going to get over the line? Obviously political will is one thing but it’s addressing some of the other factors which are hindering real progress, for example corruption is the big one. There are moves being made to deal with these issues but they still need the resources, and they still need implementing.

What will ultimately fix the problem is if you can change consumer behaviour so there is no longer a demand for rhino horn, elephant ivory, tiger skin, pangolin scales etc. Demand is ultimately what fuels this crime and if there is no market there is no incentive for people to become involved in it. So we have consumer behaviour change work going on, particularly in Vietnam and China, targeting consumers for these products, firstly trying to understand their motivations and then trying to understand what messages might persuade them to try and look for an alternative or stop using whatever product it is and—critically—who’s going to be the right person to deliver that message. I don’t see this as a quick fix but it is something that over time will provide a long-term solution.”

Well best of luck with that, I’ll be sure to look out for any announcements in page 3 of the sun. 

By Patrick Pester BSc, PGDip – Now on Twitter under the appropriate name of @pestpatrick

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