From man-eating sharks to adorable giant pandas, a species' fate is sometimes inextricably linked to its public image. While a flagship animal with undeniable charisma and positive perception, such as the bald eagle, or orangutan, have no difficulty attracting goodwill from many sympathizers, many of today's less iconic but equally important endangered species are not as fortunate. However, public perception is not permanent, and it can change drastically with careful planning and effective implementation. None is more evident than this case from Myanmar.
The country's iconic Irrawaddy dolphins, bearing the name of the Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) river that most of Myanmar's rural populations depend on for their livelihoods, are regularly hunted and killed by illegal electric fishing. Yet, any attempt by conservationists and activists to raise awareness of the issue has fallen on deaf ears for most of the previous decade. To raise awareness about this issue, Nyein Zaw Ko, founder and campaign leader of the “Save Irrawaddy Dolphins” campaign, and his colleagues from the Nature Advocacy employed psychographic marketing techniques to instigate a public outcry to save the endangered dolphins.
How it all started
Irrawaddy dolphin is an oceanic dolphin species found in isolated subpopulations near sea coasts, estuaries, and rivers around the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, the species inhabits the upper section of the Ayeyarwady River. Archeological evidence excavated from Pyu City-States (2nd century BCE to mid-11th century) shows that the wild dolphins and local cast-net fishers have lived together for successive generations and collaborated in fishing activities to land more catch. This unique culture, termed “Cooperative Fishing”, is still being practiced among the fishing villages along the river. The Myanmar government established a protected area spanning 74 kilometers (46 miles) along the river. A new 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch from Male to Shwegu was added later in 2018 (Dasgupta, 18). A survey from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in their habitat range in early February 2020 found only 79 individuals (Mann, 20).
Irrawaddy Dolphin’s meat is still consumed in Myanmar
In addition to long-standing river pollution and entanglement in gill nets, a new threat to the dolphin has emerged in recent years: the highly ecologically destructive electric-shock fishing. Even though the practice has been outlawed, many illegal fishing cartels are still operating even in the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (DPA). Eight dolphin carcasses were already discovered in 2020, recording the highest death rate since official surveys have begun. Most of these deaths were due to electric-shock fishing practice, which has become rather rampant in the protected area during the COVID-19 enforced lockdown period. Many more dolphins were feared dead from hunting and illegal trading of dolphin meat and body parts. Despite these unusually high numbers of tragic deaths, the authorities have not taken any action to protect the species in the government-recognized protected area yet. Outraged with this apparent lack of concern by the government, volunteers from Nature Advocacy are now running an online campaign to raise awareness about the plight of the Irrawaddy dolphins. They aim to inform the public about their important role in the ecosystems of the Ayeyarwady river basin, and to demand urgent actions from the Myanmar government.
Electrocution by electric shock fishing is the biggest threat to the dolphins’ long term survival
Communication at the intersection of environmental science and digital marketing
Previous communication about Irrawaddy dolphin conservation in Myanmar typically fell into two major categories. The first is in the form of press releases that come laden with tables and graphs, stating how many dolphins died, the causes of death, and the carcass measurements. Unsurprisingly, this kind of information appeals only to reporters and academic researchers. The second features dolphin-centric messages, such as the dolphins look cute, bear the name of the iconic Irrawaddy river or help fishermen increase their catch, and attribute these aspects to the need to protect them. This communication style appeals to animal lovers and the scholars of history, culture, and humanities, but unfortunately, this also did not generate much public interest outside its enthusiast groups. Until then, nobody in Myanmar could pinpoint any convincing reason that relates Irrawaddy dolphins to everyone and their everyday activities. In today's increasingly distracting media environment, it is nearly impossible to get public attention without a core message that is commonly understandable and easily relatable to everyone.
To craft a strategy that penetrates everyday media chatter, Nature Advocacy identified important stakeholders who could contribute to the cause and carefully segmented their profiles into well-defined groups _ students, local fishermen, potential dolphin tour visitors, conservationists, etc. They studied each group's psychographic attributes, such as needs, values, opinions, and lifestyle choices, etc., in detail to understand their key concerns and interests and relate the Irrawaddy dolphin's image and other critical conservation problems to each stakeholder's concerns. In doing so, the campaigners from Nature Advocacy successfully captured the attention of a wider public in Myanmar and created a public outcry from concerned citizens.
Are you prepared for a future without the Irrawaddy Dolphins?
The future is a concept that is well understood by people from all walks of life, and questioning the future proved an effective way to get attention. Nature Advocacy, having learned the universal psychographic importance of this “keyword” through interviews and surveys conducted on important stakeholder groups, constructed a core message that painted a grim future for the local "cooperative" fishermen, their households, and village communities that rely on income from dolphin watching tours. This message also caused concern among all other sectors benefiting from the ecosystem services from these indispensable freshwater ecosystems and conservation works protecting them.
Under this overarching theme, Nature Advocacy engaged each stakeholder group with tailor-made keywords and graphics that resonate well among them. Their messages geared towards conservation NGOs and the government claimed that the dolphins deserve saving, not because they are cute, but because the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area and the national river conservation policy are central to having Irrawaddy dolphins as the flagship species. If the dolphin goes extinct, the stringent regulations that protect the ecosystems in the area will unravel, intensifying habitat degradation. Their message to local communities asserted that the dolphins are important not because of the name of the Irrawaddy river that they bear but because of their role in the ecosystem services, conservation policymaking, and their ecotourism potential. On the other hand, they also urge the public to save the dolphins because they should fear that those fishermen, when unable to catch sufficient fish to support their families, may use excessive preservatives in perishable fishery products and endanger consumers' health.
By shifting the focus to people-centric topics that could generate more interest among the public and carefully targeting different stakeholder segments and demographic groups with customized messages, the campaign achieved a breakthrough. Within a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar, including conservationists, activists, students, working professionals, celebrities, travel bloggers, private businesses, and even international corporations turned to social media to share their support for saving Irrawaddy dolphins. The overwhelming answer from the Myanmar public to the campaign's question about a future without the Irrawaddy dolphin is "NO!"
Back in Jan 2020, 1 out of 3 people even among the urban, educated class did not even recognize the Irrawaddy dolphins. Fast forward to August 2020, save Irrawaddy Dolphin has become a firmly established trend that even Ford Motor Company can be seen urging people to save .
From a ‘Big Catch’ to a ‘National Treasure’
The most important part of this grassroots movement is to create an overwhelming political will from the public and urge the Myanmar government to protect the dolphins. However, most people are already under severe economic and social stress due to COVID-19 pandemic. As such, more negative news about the dolphins or demanding punishments for illegal fishers would not resonate well with the public. Nature Advocacy needed to find an overwhelmingly positive campaign goal that the public can unanimously approve of and readily contribute.
Fortunately, they found one. For thousands of years, local fishermen and the resident dolphin pods have been practicing a symbiotic "Cooperative Fishing" practice. In this practice, the dolphins can be called upon to herd the fish into a tight school towards a shallow area and pinpoint the best catch location by fluking directly above the school. In doing so, the fishermen could know the best place to cast net in the murky water, and the dolphins could catch the fishes that dodge the net with a wrong turn or otherwise disoriented by it. A study on the catch composition of a cooperative fishery from the Dolphin Protected Area (DPA) revealed that the catch per cast increased by 2-3 times when the dolphins are involved. (Smith et al., 09).
Owing to this unique culture, the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area is listed in the UNESCO tentative list of "World Natural Heritage" since 2014, the first step towards official recognition. When designated, such a plan will entail the highest level of protection from the Myanmar government to the endangered dolphins, along with their habitat. The conservation projects may receive technical support from UNESCO with regards to river conservation as well. For these reasons, this conservation plan will undoubtedly benefit the local villagers for generations to come. As a result, the campaign received an overwhelmingly positive response from locals and the general public.
With that in mind, the Nature Advocacy, along with its supporters, is now calling for the parliament to increase the levels of protection of endangered dolphins, and to apply for a UNESCO designation of this unique "cooperative fishing" culture. Such a "brand positioning" attempt will not only raise the profile of the country internationally and promote ecotourism, this will also fundamentally change the way local people perceive the Irrawaddy dolphins. To facilitate this initiative, Nature Advocacy's graphic design team worked relentlessly to create elegant designs to attract social media attention. Merchandises and souvenir items, bearing dolphin pictures, are being sold to crowd-fund exploratory research on "Cooperative Fishing" culture to uncover more myths, legends, and bedtime stories from local fishermen and village elders alike. This research will build the groundwork for an eventual UNESCO application as a “Natural Heritage". Due to these highly publicized efforts, the Irrawaddy dolphin is gaining widespread acceptance as an icon that symbolizes the heart and soul of Myanmar's cultural heritage.
Dolphin watching tours showcasing “Cooperative Fishing” culture is gaining popularity among tourists
Save them now before it becomes too late!
After months of rigorous effort, dolphin campaigners from Nature Advocacy have collected over 20,000 signatures on a petition and submitted an appeal to Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Outlined in this appeal are holistic suggestions from conservationists, media specialists, environmental lawyers, local fishing communities, and other experts from relevant fields who are collaborating with Nature Advocacy in this cause. It ended with a demand for urgent conservation actions. Due to their selfless contribution to biodiversity conservation in Myanmar, even during COVID-19 related lockdowns, campaign leaders of Nature Advocacy were featured by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as "Planet Heroes" in November 2020.
Nature Advocacy, by leveraging this newly found reputation and the resulting media attention, has subsequently collaborated with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), several other local NGOs, and private organizations to convene the "Save Irrawaddy Dolphin Week" in late November 2020. This one week-long media campaign issued stay-at-home challenges that urge people to take actions from home and contribute to Irrawaddy dolphins conservation actions by participating in the drawing, storytelling contests, etc. The resulting press and media coverage has been extensive and has reached several million more people, locally and internationally.
Necessary funds for conducting dolphin surveys and interviews are raised by crowd-funding and selling merchandise, such as tote bags and reusable aluminum water bottles that replace their plastic counterparts. Private enterprises with synergistic products or service offerings to the cause are also showing interest in conducting CSR programs to help locals communities or raise more funds for conservation activities. Some are actively associating their brands with the dolphins to strengthen their brand equity, thereby increasing the awareness further.
Only time will tell whether all these efforts will be sufficient to save the endangered dolphins. Regardless, their effort has already displaced the public perception of Irrawaddy dolphins as a "Big Catch" and rebranded them as a unique "National Treasure" of Myanmar, in the same standing as the UNESCO-recognized ancient city of Bagan.
This commentary article is written by Nyein Zaw Ko, Campaign Director of "Save Irrawaddy Dolphin" Campaign from the Nature Advocacy.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Change Magazine.
Mann, Z. (2020, February 24). Survey Finds Decade-High Numbers of Irrawaddy Dolphins. The Irrawaddy.
Brian D. Smith, Mya Than Tun, Aung Myo Chit, Han Win, Thida Moe,
Catch composition and conservation management of a human–dolphin cooperative cast-net fishery in the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar,
Biological Conservation, Volume 142, Issue 5, 2009, Pages 1042-1049,
ISSN 0006-3207, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2009.01.015.