Tackling wildlife poisoning in Cambodia

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption. Changing people’s behaviour is a challenge for conservation. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

If we want to change people’s behaviour to conserve wildlife, we need to understand how and why people think and behave as they do. To do this we can use methods and tools from disciplines that have been dealing with these questions, such as social psychology. But how do we then make use this knowledge to design effective interventions? Once again, we can draw on the accumulated decades of experience and best-practice approaches that have been developed in other fields. One such approach that has become increasingly used in conservation, with positive results is social marketing.

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption

In 2017, I conducted fieldwork to try and understand the phenomenon of wildlife poisoning in Preah Vihear province Cambodia. What we learned is that wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption, where pesticides are placed with bait at waterholes in the dry season. This is seen as a very effective and easy method, and it can catch a wide range of species, but it also risks affecting domestic animals, fish, and reduces water availability. Broadly, people in Preah Vihear are aware of and concerned by the risks of eating poisoned meat, but there are also widespread beliefs that removing the internal organs from an animal makes it safe to eat. People are also concerned about damage to the environment, their water, their cattle and dogs, so in some villages the chiefs have tried to act against poisoning, such as by organising meetings. Nevertheless, some groups continue to use poison, predominately younger men, but also kids as young as ten. Read more about this study here.

In 2018, I conducted a three-day workshop with NGO and government staff, and members of local communities. We developed a conceptual model, compiling all our respective knowledge about this problem into a diagram, and then identified possible interventions. Some of these interventions were recommendations for new regulations on the pesticides, or for altering the patrol routes of environment rangers, but some directly targeted the beliefs, attitudes, norms, and behaviours of local communities. We further developed these using the social marketing approach.

We began by selecting three priority behaviours that we aim to change. Obviously, this includes the practice of poisoning itself, but from our conceptual model we also realised that the behaviour of other members of the community would be key to influencing hunters. Specifically, we wanted to encourage community members to report observed poisoning to a hotline, and to be vigilant in refusing poisoned meat. For each of these behaviours, we then tried to characterise the different groups that would be targeted. For example, a key group of hunters is young children aged 10-15, and a key group we’d ask to be vigilant and report poisoning are the parents of these children. For each of these groups we then examined the costs and benefits of the current behaviour, and the costs and benefits of our desired behaviour, and used these to identify potential routes to change. For example, parents might not report poisoning because they are concerned it will upset others or provoke conflict, but doing so would keep their children, community, and animals safe, and could earn them respect from village leaders. Our messaging therefore focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community, and that rather than be upset, your community will be thankful.

Our messaging focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community

Earlier this year, in 2019, I supported WCS in implementing a small part of our planned campaign as a pilot. This served as a case study for my own research into how NGO communications influence behaviour, and how this is mediated by local social networks. For this pilot, we targeted parents with children between the ages of 10-15 and organised an event in cooperation with local government. The event started with short talks by government officials from the departments of health, environment, and agriculture, as well as NGO staff. These talks were intended to highlight all the various risks of pesticide misuse and contamination, explain the laws around pesticide use, and to increase the salience of this issue for our audience. We also had a powerful testimony of a farmer from a nearby village who had lost cattle to poisoning.

Next we screened a short film that was produced especially for this campaign, together with a filmmaker Phearun Yin. The film told the story of a boy, Chan, who discovers that his friends have been poisoned after bathing in a waterhole. He learns that Vibol, another boy, is responsible and decides to tell the parents of the sick children. There is much debate about what to do, but eventually the parents decide to speak to Vibol’s parents about the issue. She already knows that Vibol plays with poison but didn’t think to do anything about it. Eventually, the village chief persuades them that they should call the poisoning hotline, following which environment staff come to remove the contamination and poison. They reward the kids with a certificate for their bravery in reporting and thank everyone for their cooperation. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation.

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation. The key elements are that kids are playing with pesticides as a fun way to catch wildlife, and that parents aren’t doing anything about it. Yes – we even interviewed some parents who told us about this. Obviously, the risks to both health and the environment are highlighted, and we have a scene showing that illness is keeping the kids from school – something which is very important to parents. Finally, it was important to show the process of discussion and deliberation, the uncertainty about the best course of action, and the potential for conflict. This reflected the real barriers that are faced by the audience. All this is eventually resolved, and their decision to act in the desired way results in a safer environment and a happy community. Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

After the screening, WCS staff took time to give details about the poisoning hotline and explain how it works. For example, the costs of the call would be refunded, and anonymity was assured if requested. A discussion was then held where the audience was asked to reflect on the motivations and actions of the different characters. This way we hoped to come to a shared understanding of the film and forge a public consensus that reporting poisoning is the best course of action. For members of the audience who still felt hesitant, this could show them the rest of the audience was on board. By using an emotive film, we also hoped to help the audience overcome some of the emotional barriers to action, such as apathy, or the fear of conflict. Furthermore, we wanted this to be something the audience could continue to reflect on, and share with their children, so we distributed a coloured children’s book which told the same story. We also handed out attractive stickers, and calendar leaflets, which showed our campaign logo and the hotline phone number, so that it would always be close at hand, and never far from mind.

We closed our event with a ceremony and a small party. Mimicking the final scene of our film, we asked the audience to make a public pledge of ‘good citizenship’, promising to use pesticides responsibly, and to report contamination. Pledgees received a certificate (identical to that shown in the film) signed by the commune chief, and a big poster so they can proudly show their neighbours and friends that they are a good citizen. This is based on the idea that making a commitment publicly increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.

This event wasn’t perfect, but represents a start in getting conservationists to think beyond awareness raising, and to be a bit more nuanced in their engagement with communities. We didn’t have a great budget for the finishing party, and maybe weren’t able to create the buzz we would have liked for the pledging ceremony. We also abandoned earlier plans to work together with the local school and make it a real parent-pupil-teacher event. Instead, it was a sort of fancier version of the kinds of community meetings that NGOs call all the time. I’m convinced that those small details can make a world of difference, but time will tell whether this little pilot will have any impact. Walking through the village several weeks later I was encouraged to see several of our posters up on people’s front doors. Doing applied research in collaboration with a conservation NGO has meant opportunities but also obligations, and this was a particularly stressful field trip trying to bring all parties together, and design all our materials in a very short timeframe, But it has also been an immensely rich experience from which I have learned a lot. Let’s hope our evaluation data will be equally illuminating.

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