Sylvie and Olivier Chantecaille on a boat during their trip with WildAid. Photo by Shawn Heinrichs for WildAid.

Restoring a Natural Balance

Sylvie Chantecaille chats with Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, about their journey swimming with whale sharks in Mexico—and how we can reverse the senseless killing of wild animals.


WildAid is not subtle in their work. While other wildlife conservation nonprofits focus on anti-poaching or scientific research in faraway landscapes or campuses, WildAid takes their fight directly to the public. They believe that reducing consumer demand for wild animal products that are eaten as delicacies or used in traditional medicines in developing countries—from shark fin and turtle eggs to rhino horn and pangolin scales—is the key to saving many endangered species.

Their campaigns blaring the high-impact slogan, “When the buying stops, the killing can too,” featuring mega-influencers like Leo DiCaprio, Prince William, NBA star Yao Ming, and Chinese actress Angelababy, are ubiquitous on airwaves and billboards across Asia, especially in China and Vietnam. Their work has not only driven awareness about the illegal killing of animals, it has influenced major drops in prices and consumption of endangered species products. Just this month, they notched a victory by helping to convince Taiwan’s government to add whale sharks, giant oceanic manta rays, and reef manta rays to their protected species list. Days later, China announced that pangolin scales would no longer be an approved ingredient in traditional medicines. This is a huge win, not only because up to 200,000 pangolins are killed each year for their scales and meat, but because it’s believed that Sars-CoV2, the virus that has caused the pandemic, is thought to have originated in bats and was transmitted to humans via other wild animals, possibly pangolins. It’s become all too clear that consuming wildlife is a threat to human health, too.

Sylvie Chantecaille got to see the fruits of WildAid’s impactful work up close when she traveled with founder Peter Knights and his wife Corie to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to swim with a school of migrating whale sharks. Here, the longstanding practice of hunting these gentle giants for profit has been reversed with government support and replaced with the much more sustainable practice of whale-shark tourism. (WildAid also works with governments to strengthen protection of Marine Protected Areas from illegal fishing and shark finning.) This trip inspired our Summer 2020 Vibrant Oceans collection, in support of WildAid’s efforts.

On one Monday in June, about 100 days into the Covid-19 lockdowns, Sylvie chatted with Peter Knights on Instagram Live about their shared passions. ICYMI, what follows are excerpts (condensed and edited) from their conversation.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights; Sylvie Chantecaille. Photos by Stephen Loewinsohn and Shawn Heinrichs for WildAid.

WORTH MORE ALIVE
Sylvie: On our trip, I fell head over heels in love with whale sharks. I have always wanted to swim with them. To jump in the water in the middle of all these incredible beings was something I had always dreamed of. I adore manta rays too—I find their faces extraordinary. I’ve read that they are so intelligent, that they have the biggest brain of any animal in the ocean.

Peter: Yes. There’s the giant oceanic manta ray and also the spotted eagle ray, which are much smaller but very beautiful. It feels like you're following the angels to heaven when they are in front of you, gently swimming away. It's just absolutely breathtaking. Also, there are mobula rays, which are smaller black rays. Unfortunately, they are hunted for their gill rakers, which are used as a food additive for soup in Asia. Thankfully, people are moving away from that practice. But of course, we worry in these times of COVID, while economies are struggling, that people will turn more to fishing. But in fact, ultimately you can make a lot more money out of [rays] by keeping them alive and having tourists snorkel and dive with them.

Sylvie: I remember talking to our boat captain, who said about the whale sharks, “Go ahead—you can talk to them!” So obviously he developed a love and an understanding of these incredible beings. When you see that, you see the real progress, how people can change, and also make a living. It’s a win-win.

Peter: Absolutely… it’s about trying to find creative ways of making a living and still sustaining the environment.

Sylvie: It’s the same story everywhere, like with elephant poaching. If the local people locally can make money and survive by seeing these animals as their pride and their wealth, then it changes everything.

A shark in shallow waters. Photo by James Ferrara.

THE BEAUTY OF SHARK-INFESTED WATERS
Sylvie: I know you’ve just had a huge success in Taiwan. Can you tell us about it?

Peter: For about 15 years now, we've been working in Taiwan to try and get whale sharks protected. They used to be killed for something called tofu meat—they would eat the meat of the whale sharks. We’d actually gotten them to reduce their quota. They could see that the average size [of whale shark] was going down, so [hunting them] clearly wasn't sustainable. And now they finally [as of June 1] have given full protection to mantas and to whale sharks. So that's very encouraging.

Sylvie: Every year we kill, what, a hundred million sharks? Many of them for shark fin soup.

Peter: That's the estimate. We don't even know. But yes, it's huge, huge numbers. And, we need sharks in the ocean. They're the top predators. They reproduce slowly. They're not like most fish that produce millions of eggs, so they are very vulnerable to overfishing. Off the Grand Banks of Canada, fisheries have collapsed partly because the sharks have been overfished, and then other animals come in and fill that niche and then suddenly the cod can’t come back because the whole system's been upended.

Sylvie: I love to dive, and I've seen how, when there are no sharks in the coral reef, the other fish come in and clean everything out. It’s a disaster for the coral reef.

Peter: There are some studies of pristine ecosystems where they thought they would find small numbers of sharks, but there's actually loads of them. That's what is keeping the system in balance. And so, what happens is that some of the other fish overgraze the reef because they're not constantly moving as they don't have the sharks chasing them. The whole thing can unravel pretty quickly. So we absolutely have to be careful about removing sharks.

A baby sea turtle; coral reef. By Ben Hicks, courtesy of WildAid.

PROTECTING THE FAMILY JEWELS
Sylvie: Talk to me about marine reserves [a Marine Protected Area, or MPA, is a section of the ocean where the government has placed a limit on human activity]. We’ve supported these for years with our products. It’s a great thing when a country makes an effort to create them, but then there's not enough money to protect them.

Peter: Well, that's it. Marine reserves are the national parks of the sea, but they've been very much the poor relative. In recent years we’ve seen an uptick in how many countries are setting aside Marine Protected Areas, which is great, but it's no good just declaring a Marine protected area. You actually have to police it. You have to make sure commercial fishing boats aren't coming in and poaching the fish. And obviously some of these areas, Galapagos, for example, where we work, the Marine Protected Area is the size of New York State. It's a massive area and we have to adopt new technologies to address the policing, to make policing affordable. So we're doing things like satellite vessel monitoring systems that use satellites to basically track the fishing vessels. And it's an amazing picture to have a look at the station where this tracking is done and all the commercial fishing boats are lined up right on the boundary because they know they can't go over the line. That's an effective Marine Protected Area.

Sylvie: And also every MPA is a bed for new fish.

Peter: Yes, it's like a bank—you can live off the interest, and if not, you basically sell the family jewels. So Marine Protected Areas are a very important part of not just preserving the wildlife, but also maintaining healthy fisheries.

"We need to try and see if we can learn some of these lessons from COVID and not let it happen again."

PREVENTING ANOTHER OUTBREAK
Peter: A big project for us right now is how do we make sure we don't have another outbreak after COVID—you know, can we prevent it? You've probably heard there's the suspected links with bats as the source of the virus, and then the possible transmission by a pangolin. We've known for a long time that bushmeat is a transmission mechanism. HIV was believed to have come from monkeys to chimps, and then the chimps were slaughtered and it was passed on to humans at that point. This has been an accident waiting to happen, let's say. And so we're trying to work out with governments around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, where there's a lot of live wildlife markets, and then also parts of Africa—West and central Africa where bushmeat consumption is very prevalent—to try and reduce some of these high-risk practices, things like mixing species together, keeping them live and transporting them to cities. These all increase the risks and we need to try and see if we can learn some of these lessons from COVID and not let it happen again.

Sylvie: If we could just understand the damage financially around the world that COVID has created, I would hope that everybody could agree to stop wildlife trafficking. I mean, it only benefits a small group of people.

Peter: The bushmeat trade is not that massive… And obviously whatever benefit has been made from people trading wildlife illegally is dwarfed by the impact COVID had had on the world economies. It's just a very high-risk activity. So it was really an insurance policy to start dealing with wildlife trafficking more seriously, increasing the fines, increasing the enforcement, and where we come in is in the public education and trying to persuade people that [consuming endangered wildlife] is an antisocial thing to do. People can show their support by going to endthetrade.com and signing the petition, which we'll be giving to various bodies and leaders around the world to try and stop live animal markets.

A WildAid PSA. Courtesy of WildAid.

GETTING GOVERNMENTS TO CHANGE
Sylvie: Peter, I'm very interested in what you're doing around the world. When I'm traveling in Asia. I see your enormous ads, the famous people saying, “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” You've been enormously successful with that. Talk to me about what you've been able to accomplish with the Chinese government now.

Peter: Well, we always wish for more success than we've had, but thank you. The encouraging news from the Chinese government is that on Friday, they announced that they are listing pangolins in the same classification as pandas, which is great. That'll up the protection.

Sylvie: That's huge, actually, if you think of pandas as their pride and joy…

Peter: They are, and they are very well protected and there’s very serious punishment if you violate it. But it's still being used in medicinal trade and that needs to end. [UPDATE: Two days later China did de-list pangolin scales as an acceptable ingredient in traditional medicines.] Everything's banned right now, all wildlife consumption is banned [a temporary ban issued by the government]. They are going to allow some animals, but things like quail and pheasants, wild ducks—things that actually everyone around the world eats.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Sylvie: I think, right now, the whole world is changing. The skies are clearer, the water is cleaner….nature has never been more beautiful than it has been this spring. Nature is telling us, If you leave me alone for five minutes, look at what I can do! It's extraordinary.

Peter: I hope it gives us time to pause and time to reflect and to realize just how blessed we are with this planet. This wonderful planet that gives us so much, and it's so bountiful, but to also recognize that it has its limits and whether it's climate change or other things, we can only push it so hard without it kicking back. And when it kicks back, my God, is it painful. And it stems, I think, from our environmental abuse.

 

Watch this video to understand the connection between the illegal wildlife trade and COVID-19.

 

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