Socially Acceptable. . .Or Not

socially acceptable

Elephant “society” has its do’s and don’ts, and relies on these standards for survival.  At the David Sheldrick Orphanage in Nairobi, where these two young ones were photographed, teaching orphans proper behavior is the highest priority after stabilizing physical and mental health. While the human caretakers are responsible for the medical requirements, the elephants take the lead in teaching each other elephant etiquette.  The goal of the program is to prepare all orphans for eventual return to the wild.  Key to success is the progression of social development the orphans go through at the orphanage and when transferred to the Sheldrick rehab center in Tsavo National Park, where they gradually habituate themselves to and learn from wild elephants.

The fate of the elephant is equally dependent upon how human societies act (or not act) with respect to poaching and the illegal ivory trade.  Debate over remedies tends to focus on policing, enforcement and penalties. Behavioral economist and professor at Duke University Dan Aierly has studied the motivations of criminals and offers an additional perspective.  He argues that individuals meter their tolerance of certain behavior based on what others are doing.  Therefore, if they see a behavior as widespread, even though it may be officially “wrong,” they are more likely to engage in it.  Also, likelihood of being “caught” is given more consideration than the consequences of being caught. Perversely, this argues that heightened media attention to the poaching problem may indeed reduce the stigma of poaching (in the countries where poaching takes place) since “everyone else is doing it” and “no one is getting caught.”  (click here for full article)

This is certainly not to suggest that less media coverage is the answer; quite the opposite.  This is a war that must be fought on many fronts.  Poaching and the ivory trade are now the purview of organized crime, militias and complicit government officials.  Their motivations are relatively immune to social mores.  We need policing, enforcement and penalties to fight these enemies.  Nonetheless, to the degree that emerging laws and initiatives can bring shame upon the individuals involved in a meaningful way, we should incorporate that into our arsenal. 

On the demand side, stigmatizing ivory so that it is no longer seen as a socially acceptable accoutrement has enormous potential.  Fashion — be it wearable or decorative —  has always been fickle, and the definition of what is socially acceptable changes regularly and dramatically.  It’s time to make ivory trinkets very unfashionable.  And that must be a component of a comprehensive remedy to the poaching crisis.