- A bold new campaign launched in Ho Chi Minh City late last month focuses on pagodas and aims to educate Buddhists on the devastating impact of the illegal wildlife trade and the importance of these three species.
- Research has shown that fewer Vietnamese believe in the alleged medicinal properties of these animal parts than in the past.
- Despite increasing awareness and changes in attitude, massive shipments of ivory and pangolin scales continue to be sent to the country.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — On Jan. 28, a graphic new anti-wildlife-trafficking campaign called “Be Their Bodhisattva” launched at a major pagoda here in Vietnam’s commercial center. Under the branch of Mahayana Buddhism widely practiced across Vietnam, a bodhisattva is someone who delays reaching nirvana in order to save others from suffering.
The campaign, presented by the U.S.-based NGO WildAid and the Ho Chi Minh City-based Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE), revolves around hyper-realistic statues of an elephant, a rhino and a mother and child pangolin.
These are not your average statues, however. The elephant’s tusks are broken and blood drips down the remaining ivory; all that is left of the rhino’s horn is a bloody stump; and scales have been sheared off the pangolins. All four are in the prayer position facing Buddha, seemingly pleading for salvation.
Vietnam is a major consumer of parts from these three species, thanks to traditional medical practices that have been largely debunked. In light of World Pangolin Day, recent events have brought the need for such a campaign into stark relief.
On Feb. 1, Reuters reported that customs officials in Hong Kong had discovered an enormous shipment of ivory tusks and pangolin scales on its way to Vietnam. The consignment, worth an estimated $7.9 million, contained 2.3 tons (2,100 kilograms) of ivory and 9.1 tons (8,300 kilograms) of scales, for which an estimated 500 elephants and a staggering 13,000 pangolins were killed. It was the largest cache of pangolin scales ever found at the port.
Reuters also reported that customs officials in Hai Phong, northern Vietnam’s largest port, had found 1.4 tons (1,270 kilograms) of pangolin scales in a shipping container that arrived from Nigeria.
On the same day, Reuters reported in a separate article that authorities in Uganda had stopped a shipment intended for Vietnam that held 762 pieces of ivory and 423 kilograms (933 pounds) of pangolin scales.
Using beliefs to communicate
Amid these finds, Nhu Ho, a program manager at CHANGE, explained the strategy behind “Be Their Bodhisattva,” which will travel to four different pagodas nationwide until March 10. The group was also involved in a 2017 program covered by Mongabaythat installed 17 visually arresting murals depicting rhinos around Ho Chi Minh City.
“Every year we like to come up with a creative idea to make a campaign and spread it out to the most people possible,” Nhu said in an interview.
“Be Their Bodhisattva” is just the latest in a joint five-year effort by WildAid and CHANGE to alter attitudes toward the use of elephant, rhino and pangolin parts among Vietnamese. In some ways, it has paid off.
A 2016 Nielsen survey conducted in Ho Chi Minh City found that 23 percent of respondents believed that rhino horn has medicinal benefits, down from 69 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, only 9.4 percent of those surveyed believed that rhino horn cures cancer, a fall from 34.5 percent two years prior.
“We wanted to focus on these three animals and put all our effort into creating a really effective campaign around them, instead of spreading our resources too thin by doing more species, as these three are the most endangered and on the verge of extinction,” Nhu added.
CHANGE and WildAid, along with local creative agency Dinosaur Vietnam, decided to target the religious beliefs of Vietnam’s Buddhists, who make up one of the country’s largest religious groups.
“We were well-aware that Vietnamese people have strong spiritual beliefs in religion, and Buddhism is the most important religion in Vietnam,” the program manager said. “Many people may trust their family members or friends a lot less than they believe in Buddha or their religious leaders.”
An auspicious start
Locating the dramatic presentation within a pagoda was a bold move on more than one level.
“We knew it could look sensitive to some people, but having done a lot of creative campaigns in the past, we’d learned that creative ideas usually mean ‘non-traditional,’ or even risky, and we decided to take the risk for this powerful idea,” Nhu said. “We also wanted to focus on a specific time of year which everyone pays attention to.”
They chose Tet, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year celebration, which ran from Feb. 2 to 10 this year. It’s a time of what Nhu describes as “important traditional and religious celebrations when a lot of people go to pagodas.”
Actions taken at the start of Tet are also believed to set the tone for the rest of an individual’s year, so the emphasis on positive behavior is also relevant.
But Nguyen Tran Tung, CHANGE’s marketing and communications director, described the initial reaction to the campaign as muted. “On the day after I sent out the press release, I got no responses,” he said. “I was really upset. Some of my friends had warned me that this campaign could look sensitive to local media.”
“The next morning,” Tung went on, “I invited some journalists to the pagoda for them to see it with their own eyes, and the following day I felt so relieved to see one popular digital news site publish an article about the campaign with powerful pictures.” Tung said the article went viral on social media and was then covered by most major national media.
The next step is for CHANGE to bring in prominent names in an effort to amplify its message further.
“We’re waiting for some celebrities to come to the pagoda and share our campaign,” Tung said. He added that 20 local stars have agreed to take part so far.
A video about the statues will also be displayed on digital billboards at airports and malls, while leading monks and nuns from major pagodas will livestream messages on the importance of protecting animals in Buddhism. Gyalwang Drukpa, a prominent international Buddhist environmental activist, will attend the closing event here next month.
Banner image: Anti-wildlife-trafficking statues at Minh Dang Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the pagodas included in the campaign. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.