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EMBA students take on illicit animal trade

16 January 2017

EMBA students Adrian Bancilhon and Jenna French

EMBA students Adrian Bancilhon and Jenna French

Business is usually about building markets, but an international effort by postgraduate students from Australia, the United States and Africa is aimed at destroying one – the market for animal parts such as ivory.

This illicit trade is a pressing environmental issue as poaching threatens already endangered species with extinction.

“The freefall in the population of animals like the elephant and the rhino has persisted despite longstanding efforts to fight the illicit trade in wild animal parts,” says Adrian Bancilhon, one of the Executive MBA (EMBA) candidates from UTS Business School working on the project. “Efforts to disrupt supply are not working fast enough or have failed.”

Kill demand to kill the market

That means the opportunities must lie on the demand side. “If you kill the demand, you kill the market,” he says.

Since 1979 the world’s elephant population is estimated to have fallen from 10 million to about 350,000 today. From 500,000 rhinos in 1970, there are now less than 30,000, with extinction possible by 2020.

The UTS team says this has not just environmental impacts but also economic, health and security impacts.

While raw ivory fetches more than $2000 a kilogram in China, a live elephant attracts an estimated $23,000 a year in tourism in the wild in Africa or $1.6 million over its life.

Wildlife tourism accounts for 80 per cent of the $37 billion tourism industry across the continent, Bancilhon says. “What will African countries do if that revenue is no longer there?”

Meanwhile “bush meat” has been linked to the spread of diseases such as ebola, and there is evidence that the proceeds of poaching are being used to fund terrorism, the team has found in its research.

The UTS team has identified the need to address deep-seated attitudes among consumers of animal parts and considered successful tactics from other campaigns.

Fellow EMBA candidate William Bruce points to the “quite remarkable” shift from smoking being “cool” to it being an antisocial behaviour, with the resulting fall in consumption. “Change the belief and you change the behaviour,” he says.

Understanding the consumer will be important but difficult. “This is often a consumer who doesn’t want to be found,” he notes.

The UTS team identified South-East Asia as a key consumer market – in particular business people who regard illicit animal products as status symbols and use them in business ceremonies, as well as mothers who believe in their medicinal properties.

UTS Business School’s Director of Education Services, Dr Lan Snell, who has Vietnamese heritage and who was the faculty lead for the project, says this is a truly “wicked” problem because of those associations.

Unconventional solutions for an unconventional problem

“The use of animal parts like rhino horn is an entrenched and culturally embedded issue,” she says. “But unconventional problems demand unconventional solutions and the students have embraced this.”

UTS team member Jenna French explains that in countries like Vietnam and China, access to something expensive and illicit like rhino horn is a symbol of status and power, as well as being part of a belief system around medicinal properties.

“The consumer behaviour is complicated and multidimensional, so simple interventions will fail,” she says. “This can’t be textbook 101 marketing.”

She adds: “We have to hit status, ego and pride.”

The group has identified the use of trendsetters or “influencers” as an important tool for behavioural change.

The consumption of shark fin soup, for instance, fell noticeably after celebrities such as Chinese basketballer Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan became involved in campaigns, while entrepreneur Richard Branson was able to secure pledges from peers in Asia not to use products from endangered species in business ceremonies.

In the next phase of the project, MBA students from Temple University’s Fox Business School will use the framework the UTS team has developed to produce a marketing strategy.

Lastly, it is proposed that MBA candidates from a university in Africa will develop a financing model to fund the strategic plan.

The UTS EMBA candidates worked on the wildlife project as part of their Global Business Practice Subject. All of UTS Business School’s MBA programs include this sort of practical, “experiential” learning – working on real-world challenges under the guidance of a Project Executive who is a practitioner, executive or entrepreneur, or a Business School academic with on-the-ground experience.

Students test their ideas with members of an Advisory Council also drawn from the business and entrepreneurial community, a panel that in this instance included Ian Higgins, a former CEO of Greenpeace Australia-Pacific and of WWF Australia, Paul Thorley, former CEO of Capgemini Asia-Pacific and Middle East, and Associate Professor Jim Hutchin, Associate Dean, Business Practice and External Engagement

On their visit to the United States mission the UTS team also met with experts from Philadelphia Zoo and the Adventure Aquarium, as well as design thinking and innovation specialists from organisations such as Liquid Hub, Independence Blue Cross, BDP International and the City of Philadelphia Innovation Lab. 

For more information about the EMBA program at UTS visit emba.uts.edu.au.