Asia for Animals: combatting cruelty, ignorance, and greed


Delegates to the 10th Asia for Animals (AfA) conference grappled with the issue of changing human behaviour, which was the theme of this year’s gathering.

There were inspiring presentations about successes in animal conservation, but attendees also heard heartbreaking stories from throughout Asia about cruelty, loss of habitat, the illegal pet trade, and the trade in animal parts.

The conference, which took place in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, from December 2 to 5, brought together more than five hundred people. They ranged from those working on the ground in rescue and rehabilitation organisations to animal advocates, veterinarians, scientists, scholars, and those working in education.

The delegates hailed from 190 organisations in 45 countries. There were more than 170 presentations on issues ranging from reducing the ivory trade in China and tackling donkey welfare to saving mountain frogs and ending animal testing in cosmetics.

During the conference, participants heard the good news that Instagram users will now see a warning message that pops up if they search for, or click on, a hashtag that “may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment”.

Instagram had already prohibited the posting of content that overtly depicts animal abuse and offers endangered animals or animal parts for sale.

Now, when users see the new notification, they can click through to a help centre page on which Instagram encourages people to be mindful of their interactions with wild animals, “and consider whether an animal has been smuggled, poached, or abused for the sake of tourism”.

Instagram tells people to be wary when paying for photo opportunities with exotic animals, “as these photos and videos may put endangered animals at risk”.

It says it is working with wildlife groups to identify photos or videos that violate its community guidelines by depicting animal abuse, or condoning poaching, or offering endangered animals and their parts for sale.

Ismail Agung from International Animal Rescue, who gave a presentation about the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia, told conference attendees that syndicates were increasingly using Instagram to display animals for sale.

Agung spoke specifically about the trade in slow lorises and said social media was a double-edged sword. It could encourage conservation efforts, he said, but could also be used to advertise slow lorises for sale.

A captive slow loris in a market in Jakarta, Indonesia, has its teeth ripped out. Photo by the CEO of International Animal Rescue, Alan Knight.

The trade in donkey skins

Photo © The Donkey Sanctuary.

One of the most disturbing presentations at the AfA conference was the one given by Alex Mayers from The Donkey Sanctuary, which is based in the UK and runs programmes in forty countries.

Mayers talked about the horrors of the donkey skin trade. The sanctuary staff first heard about the trade in Africa.

“We heard stories about communities in Kenya losing their donkeys. They were being found near the house, slaughtered. The skins had been removed, and the carcasses were just left lying there.”

The sanctuary produced a report in January this year entitled “Under the Skin“, which details the devastating scale of the trade.

“The skins are taken from donkeys and boiled down into a gelatine, which is then turned into a medicinal product called ejiao. This is sold, mostly in China, and it’s used as a blood tonic.”

As the population of donkeys in China has fallen dramatically, middlemen have been seeking a supply to meet the demand for ejiao, Mayers says.

“The current supply for the trade in ejiao is about two million donkeys per year,” Mayers said. “The current demand for donkeys is more like ten million.”

Donkeys are being killed for their skins in numerous countries around the world, Mayers says. These include South Africa, Egypt, Botswana, Peru, Pakistan, and India.

“Donkeys are being stolen from communities that rely on them for everything – for water, and access to food markets. People are waking up to find their animals slaughtered in the bushes nearby.”

There is also a legal trade in slaughtered donkeys, Mayers says. He told delegates about a slaughterhouse in Kenya that has been closed down.

“That’s partly because of an investigation that we were doing, looking at the environmental consequences of this particular place. They have a ‘breeding ground’, which is in fact a dump site where all the donkey carcasses are just left to rot.

“It’s causing a huge environmental catastrophe in that community.”

Sick, injured, and heavily pregnant donkeys are transported and killed for the skin trade, Mayers says. “We are seeing many cases of spontaneous abortions on the road.”

Tiger skins have been stuffed in amongst donkey skins for export, Mayers adds. “It’s the same with drugs, and with pangolin scales.”

Five countries – Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Ethiopia – have banned exports of donkey skin.

Positive interactions

In a welcome contrast to the horrors of donkey slaughter, Mayers (pictured above) talked about the positive influence of donkeys in their interactions with humans.

Mayers showed conference participants a photo of a girl with cerebral palsy with her donkey, Shocks, and told them that donkeys “will match their heartbeat to the person they are with”.

Riding Shocks helped develop Amber’s muscles and there was a gradual change in the timid donkey, who blossomed and became friendly and confident.

Amber and Shocks. Photo courtesy of The Donkey Sanctuary.

The suffering of bears and elephants

Gilbert Sape from World Animal Protection (WAP), who gave a talk entitled “Wildlife not medicine”, talked about the “unnecessary suffering” of bears farmed for bile.

During one of WAP’s microchipping drives in Vietnam, Sape vividly remembers seeing one bear being kept as a pet.

“This bear, who should have been enjoying the sun and the rain in the wild, was stuck in a 2.5- metre by 1.5-metre cage in a damp and dimly lit garage.”

The bear, Sape says, has been stuck in the same cage for 12 years and will probably remain there “until a fundamental change in government policy, and the owner’s behaviour, happen”.

WAP pioneered microchipping of captive, farmed bears in 2005 in Vietnam to prevent the entry of new bears into the bile industry.

As a result of microchipping, the number of captive bears in Vietnam was reduced from 4,000 in 2005 to the current figure of 900.

Sape says that the consumption of traditional medicines that contain animal parts is at risk of increasing as the purchasing power of people in China and elsewhere goes up.

Bear bile comes from farmed and mostly sick bears, Sape says. “In China alone, there are approximately 20,000 bears in farms that supply the industry.”

Education is key in changing behaviour, Sape says. The first task in changing human behaviour, he says, is to unbox the issue and unwrap and expose the cruelty involved in bear bile farming and such practices as the use of elephants for tourism.

“Wild animals belong in the wild, not in farms or entertainment venues.

“We need to educate people that bears have permanent holes in their stomach so that bile can easily be extracted on a daily basis; that elephants need to be broken and their spirits crushed to make them docile and passive so tourists can ride on their back.”

Sape has noticed the quietness of elephants used for rides. “Not a sound came from them; their eyes were dazed. You can sense fear and sadness.”

He compares this with the behaviour of elephants he has seen who were without chains and could roam freely, and were not used for rides and shows. “They were noisy – in a happy way – and full of life.”

Consumers in China believe that tiger parts can cure malaria, skin problems, meningitis, insomnia, fever, toothache, laziness, pimples, haemorrhoids, and even alcoholism, Sape says.

“The list is endless. We need to demystify the myth that wild animals are a panacea; that bears and tigers are medicines. They are wildlife, not medicines.”

Behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight, Sape says. “It took 14 years to end the bear bile industry in South Korea, and it took more than a decade to get the commitment of the government to provide a sustainable solution for the captive bears intended for the bile industry.”

A bear used in the bile industry in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Green Korea United.


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Reducing the demand for pangolins

Thai Van Nguyen, who founded Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, gave a presentation about how to reduce the demand for pangolins.

He told delegates that pangolins have no predator in the wild. “The problem is us,” he said, pointing out that 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales were confiscated in China on November 29 this year.

Van Nguyen talked about the increase in the number of pangolin confiscations, not only throughout Asia, but also in Africa.

Pangolins are hunted for their meat and for medicinal use. They are even used to make wine, and the scales are made into jewellery and are used as magic charms.

Pangolin scales are used to treat a huge number of ailments ranging from tumours, asthma, stomach ache, flu, and joint problems to leprosy, skin problems, and diabetes.

“More than ten million people have already eaten pangolin, and the number is increasing” Van Nguyen said.

Fewer than half of the people in Vietnam, where there are two pangolin species, know what a pangolin is, Van Nguyen says, and many people think they are reptiles.

It is very difficult to reduce the consumption of pangolins, Van Nguyen says, when people don’t even realise that they are eating an endangered animal.

Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. More than one million of them are reported to have been illegally hunted and killed in the past decade.

Two of the eight pangolin species – the Chinese and Sunda pangolins –  are now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered.

Last month, the 69th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) standing committee concluded that Parties should treat all pangolin specimens and stockpiles as Appendix I specimens, including those obtained when the species were listed in Appendix II. This means that no stockpiled pangolin parts can be legally traded internationally.

In one of the largest seizures of pangolins on record, more than 4,000 defrosting pangolins were discovered hidden in a shipping container in Indonesia in April 2015. There were 97 live pangolins in the haul, along with 77 kilos of scales. Photos by Paul Hilton¹ for the Wildlife Conservation Society.


Rhino poaching

A young white rhinoceros, translocated from South Africa, waits to be released as part of a major operation to return rhinos to Botswana. © Neil Aldridge².

Adam Peyman from the Humane Society International (HSI) says investors are stockpiling rhino horn so that, one day, they can make a huge profit.

Peyman told delegates that there were about 29,000 rhinos remaining in Africa and Asia. They are a threatened species and some of them are critically endangered.

Rhino poaching has been escalating since 2007, Peyman told delegates. There has been a reduction in poaching in South Africa in recent years, but an increase in surrounding areas in Africa, and in Southeast Asia, where fewer than three hundred rhinos remain.

In Kenya, Peyman says, there are military-style anti-poaching operations, funded by the government.

One innovative solution is to insert a camera into a rhino’s horn so that park rangers can see immediately when one of the animals is threatened.

Another strategy is raising awareness in consumer countries, which are mostly in Asia, Peyman says. “People think rhino horn can cure anything that you might think you want to cure.”

Not many people consume rhino horn in Vietnam, Peyman says, but many people believe that it can cure all manner of problems ranging from hangovers and rheumatism to cancer.

Not only is consuming rhino horn a crime in every country in which it occurs, but it has been proven conclusively that there is no medicinal benefit, Peyman told delegates.

People also buy rhino horn that has been crafted into ornate artefacts that cost millions of dollars.

Vietnam, Peyman says, is not only a consumer country for rhino horn, but also a country of transit into China.

To reduce the demand for rhino horn, HIS, in collaboration with the Vietnam CITES Management Authority, has been running a government-led educational campaign in Vietnam, which has reached an estimated 35 million people.

The campaign focused on getting local people involved in community activities. A book for primary-aged schoolchildren, entitled “I’m a Little Rhino”, was distributed to 1.5 million children across Vietnam, and a cartoon movie based on the book was aired on national TV.

HIS has done three surveys about rhino horn consumption in Vietnam. When 2,000 people were questioned in 2016, and the results were compared with those from 2013, there was a 45 percent nationwide drop in the number of people who said they bought or used rhino horn.

There was also a 45 percent drop in the number of people who thought rhino horn was effective as a medicine.

HIS is now working with the Vietnamese government to integrate education about threatened species into the national curriculum for primary schools.


The ivory trade in China

The renowned artist, educator, and independent curator Mary Ting, who lives in New York, spoke about wildlife traders looking to make rhinos and elephants extinct because they were stockpiling rhino horn and ivory “like a savings account”.

In her presentation about “Trauma, shopping, and the lust for power objects”, Ting said that, in China, culture was being abused to make products from ivory, and this included carvings of traditional symbols. Cultural icons, such as the smiling Buddha, are being distorted, Ting says.

Ting has created numerous art works, including sculptures of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, to try and redress the balance.



Grace Ge Gabriel, who is the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s regional director for Asia, told delegates that the Chinese government is going to implement a trade ban on ivory at the end of December.

“People want the government to shut down the trade because they see that ivory has become a corruption currency,” she said.

Sustained behaviour change can only be achieved when ivory possession becomes socially unacceptable, Ge Gabriel says.

Ge Gabriel told delegates that, in 1989, CITES uplisted all African elephant populations to Appendix 1, which effectively banned the international commercial trade of elephant ivory.

“The effect of that ban was very immediate. Ivory markets across Asia collapsed and the ivory price dropped, which reduced the incentive for poaching and allowed African elephant populations to start to recover.”

Just as the populations started to recover, CITES backtracked and made decisions that resulted in the trade ban starting to be undermined. These included downlisting some elephant populations in southern African countries.

In 2008, CITES allowed a second one-off sale of elephant ivory to Japan and 108 tonnes of ivory went to Japan and China.

This, Ge Gabriel says, coincided with double-digit economic growth in China and an increase in the middle class.

“This second one-off sale actually sparked the elephant poaching crisis that we see today.”

Research showed that, between 2010 and 2012, as many as 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa. “That means that, every 15 minutes, an elephant was killed for the ivory trade,” Ge Gabriel said.

Ge Gabriel spoke about people coveting ivory as a status symbol, an investment, and a collectible, and sometimes using it in business relationships or for bribery.

The price for ivory, in Chinese currency, tripled between 2007 and 2012, Ge Gabriel says. “The profit margin is huge.”

The legal and illegal trades in ivory run in parallel, Ge Gabriel says.

Astonishingly, she says, an IFAW survey has shown that 70 percent of Chinese people don’t know that ivory comes from dead elephants. People said they thought ivory was the elephants’ teeth, and that the animals were not killed.

Ge Gabriel talked about the pillars of IFAW’s campaign against the ivory trade: a public outrage campaign to erase ignorance, working with the industry and government to change policy, making the market places unavailable for trade, and mobilising society to stigmatise ivory.

In June 2012, nearly five tonnes of elephant ivory and thousands of ivory ornaments went up in smoke in Gabon, on the west coast of Central Africa. The bonfire, lit by President Ali Bongo Ondimba, put government stockpiles of legal and confiscated tusks and ivory artefacts out of reach of the illegal ivory trade.

Erasing ignorance may change consumer behaviour, Ge Gabriel says, but to sway those who make huge profits from the ivory trade, there have to be changes in market behaviour.

In 2005, IFAW started working with some of China’s largest online marketplaces, including Alibaba and its Chinese subsidiary, Taobao. In 2008, Alibaba and Taobao banned the trade of elephant ivory and tiger, rhino, bear, shark, turtle, and pangolin parts.

“Taobao’s and Alibaba’s work led a global momentum. They did it before eBay banned ivory trade and influenced many other online platforms in China to do the same.”

IFAW has seen a sustained reduction in wildlife trade over the past two years.

“A lot of the trade has been going towards social media so we are working with China’s largest social media site, Tencent, to reduce trade,” Ge Gabriel told delegates.

IFAW has also succeeding in dramatically reducing auction sales of animal parts and has involved pop icons and other personalities in anti-ivory campaigns.

In November, CITES announced that elephant poaching has been decreasing for more than five years. “That started,” Ge Gabriel said, “with the auction trade ban.”

Ge Gabriel told Changing Times that she has seen continual, incremental, positive change in China.

“Working in China is very, very difficult, but I see change in individual behaviour; I see change in government behaviour. I see that people, and particularly the younger generation, are increasingly embracing animal welfare issues, and social media gives them a voice.”

However, Ge Gabriel says. the changing economy in China has created a huge middle class of people who don’t know how to spend money ethically.

“To really eradicate greed, you have to work with government to change policy.

“The grey market – the legal and illegal markets operating in parallel – has to be removed.”

Grace Ge Gabriel is awarded an AfA prize for her work protecting wildlife in Asia.

The welfare of farm animals

Chu Tseng-Hung, who is also known by his Buddhist name Wu Hung, was one of the founders of the Life Conservation Association, which was a major driving force in the movement that led to the passage of Taiwan’s Animal Protection Act.

In 2000, he founded the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST).

At the Kathmandu conference, Wu Hung gave a talk entitled “From ‘Crying Life’ to ‘Strategic White Paper’” about changing behaviour to achieve a better welfare policy for farm animals in Taiwan.

Wu Hung told delegates about an undercover investigation, carried out in the 1990s, into inhumane transportation and slaughter in 24 state-run meat trade markets in 21 counties and cities. A resulting video, “Crying Life”, was released in 1995.

In a second investigation, seven years after the first campaign, investigators found that little had changed. There was regulation and training, but there was still inhumane slaughter of pigs, without pre-stunning, in 80.2 percent of state-owned slaughterhouses.

Wu Hung says significant progress has been made, “but there must now be humane slaughter for all animal species”.

There is now a ban on the live trade of poultry in wet markets in Taiwan, and there are regulations for the humane transportation of pigs and dairy cattle, but not poultry. There are also legally binding guidelines for egg production, and there is labelling for alternative egg production systems.

It’s vital, and very challenging, Wu Hung says, to understand the reasons why the government and farmers resist change.

Wu Hung would like to see the Taiwanese constitution modified to state that the government,, or the nation, should protect both the environment and animals. A legislator put forward such a motion two years ago, but failed to get it passed.

Animal welfare campaigners in Taiwan are also pushing for a White Paper on animal care. The process has begun, Wu Hung says, and a first draft – about farm animals – has  been produced. It states that a panel should be set up to develop animal protection policies, and it should be made up of experts, scholars, officials from relevant agencies, and representatives from legitimate civic animal welfare groups.

The government’s main policy goal, Wu Hung says, is maintaining welfare consistency throughout all stages of farming production, including transportation.

Constitutional change would really help to change the animal welfare landscape in Taiwan, Wu Hung says. Currently, he says, the Taiwanese are eating between three and seven times more meat than is recommended by the government.

“We need to scale up our campaigns, not only for farm animals,” Wu Hung told delegates. Petitioning for a ban on battery cages will be a primary focus.



The Abbot of the Thrangy Tara Abbey Nunnery, Khenpo Chonyi Rangdrol, talked to AfA delegates about protecting the Earth, living simply, and acting with compassion. “We need,” he said, “to differentiate between what we want and what we need.”

“If you want to change the world, the first thing is you have to change yourself. You have to change within. Then you’ll be able to change others.”

The ebullient writer and strategist Mark Earls gave a dynamic and informative talk about behaviour change. “All behaviour change is hard because human behaviour is complex,” he told delegates.

“It’s resistant to change, by and large, at an individual level, at a group level, at a community level, and at a population level.”

Earls talks about looking outside of your field to find solutions, and “copying well”.

He told delegates the story of a leading paediatric heart surgeon in London who developed a new protocol for the operating theatre after studying the handover skills of Formula One pit-stop teams. The idea came to him by chance when he was watching motor racing on TV.

“Within a year, they had taken the human error count down by 42 percent,” Earls said.


Suzanne Rogers, who founded the social enterprise company Human Behaviour Change for Animals (HBCA), talked about the four pillars of change in human behaviour: the process of change, the psychology of change, the environment for change, and ownership of change.

She urged delegates to embrace the scientific studies that have been done about behaviour change. Confrontation, Rogers says, is the “biggest predictor of failure to change”. We need, she says, to truly understand why people do what they do, or don’t do.

People working in animal welfare and conservation need, Rogers says, to go beyond trying to create awareness, and communicate in innovative ways to reach people’s hearts and minds. Education, she says, is vital.

“If we think about humans in the way that we think about animals, we can be much more compassionate, much more empathetic, and much more effective at drawing behaviour change.”

On the last day of the conference, Muhammad Moazzam Khan from WWF Pakistan talked about changes in fishing behaviour that, every year, are saving thousands of dolphins along with other marine wildlife, including sharks, turtles, and whales.

Pei Feng Su from ACTAsia gave a presentation entitled “Change how we teach to change how we behave”. She said that respect for animals, people, and the environment was “the most valuable human quality that will lead to a compassionate world”.


Reason, respect, and responsibility

One of the most inspiring speakers at the 2017 conference was 11-year-old Arya Jibi, who was stunningly impassioned and articulate in his speech about the importance of wildlife conservation.

Jibi advocates reason, respect, and responsibility, and says wildlife conservation must be our top priority.

If we don’t take serious action, he says, “one day our future generation will only be able to see a tiger in a photograph”.

Animal conservation, Jibi told delegates, is not just about wildlife; it is also about natural resources and maintaining a healthy ecological balance. “It is also about the environment and ecosystems.”

Day by day, Jibi says, because of the actions of humans, wildlife are getting destroyed.

“Pollution, industrialisation, the use of more plastic bags, and population growth are causing a problem to wildlife.”

Humans consider themselves superior to wildlife and are taking over wildlife spaces in the name of development and modernisation, Jibi says.

The renowned primatologist Jane Goodall joined the conference by video. “Wild animals need our help,” she said. “We need to change our attitude and understand each one of them as an individual.”

Arya Jibi told delegates: “Each of us can help and conserve wildlife. As Jane Goodall said, ‘Each of us here can make a difference and you have to choose what kind of difference you want to make’.”

We need, Suzanne Rogers says, “to be empowering people to be the change; to make the changes themselves and to spread the change.”


During the AfA conference, four monks from the Himalayan Buddist Mandala Group created a five-deity Heruka Chakrasamvara (Wheel of Bliss) mandala, then swept it away on the last day in a ritual that symbolises impermanence and non-attachment.  


1 & 2: Neil Aldridge and Paul Hilton belong to the international group Photographers Against Wildlife Crime, who have produced an extraordinary new book, which will be launched in May 2018.

More conference coverage to follow in Part 2: conservation in Nepal, positive action in the Philippines, changing behaviour in Indonesia, saving frogs, animals as food, the emotional life of animals, and more about the plight of working equines.


The Scorpion Wildlife Trade Monitoring Group from Indonesia won the conference award for an outstanding performance by an emerging organisation. Scorpion’s programme director Gunung Gea is pictured accepting the award from Animals Asia’s animal welfare director Dave Neale. (More about Scorpion in Part 2.)