Art Exhibit Spotlights Animal Trafficking

Click an image to enlarge it and see a description of the artwork and animal it is portraying.

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Imagine a pine cone about the size of a house cat. Now give it four stubby legs with clawed feet, a scaly, prehensile tail, and a neck-less, long-snouted head. What you’ve imagined is a pangolin, thought to be the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Native to Asia and Africa, the eight species of pangolin are highly sought after in Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam. There, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and status symbol, and its keratin scales are crafted into jewelry and medicine despite its lack of medicinal properties. It’s blood is consumed for its imagined healing and aphrodisiac powers.

While demand in Asia is a major concern, pangolins are also hunted for their meat in Africa, and in the United States thousands of pangolin products are confiscated by authorities at the border annually, while tens of thousands more evade notice. Pangolins are listed as vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature depending on the species in question.

Despite their plight, most readers of this story have probably never heard of a pangolin. That’s a problem, because without public awareness, and the conservation efforts and dollars that go along with that awareness, pangolins could go the way of the dodo.

"Wildlife: Trading & Conservation," an upcoming art exhibit hosted by the Rhode Island School of Design, hopes to intervene on the pangolins' behalf. The exhibit will attempt to raise the awareness of its audience about the impact of global trade on some of the world’s most trafficked animals. The 32 participating artists interviewed animal experts, including biologists, veterinarians, park rangers, zookeepers and policymakers, during the six-month scope of the project, to help them craft artwork informed by fact.

Among the imperiled animals to be featured in the exhibit are pangolins, African gray parrots, chimpanzees, elephants, sea turtles, lions, red and green macaws, rhinoceros, sharks and tigers. Dr. Lucy Spelman, organizer of the exhibit, a part-time faculty member at RISD, and a zoo and wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, said she hopes visitors to the exhibit will learn about, celebrate and protect these animals. Visitors can help in a number of ways, according to Spelman, including buying a piece of art, making and sharing their own artwork, creating wildlife habitat on their property, volunteering their time or donating to a conservation organization.

“We Google something when we want to buy it, and then buy it,” she said. “We can Google something we want to conserve, and then conserve it as well."

In 2014, Spelman — who has witnessed wildlife trafficking firsthand in South America and Central Africa, treated animals injured by trafficking, and met some of the people responsible — co-founded Creature Conserve, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing artists and scientists together to foster animal conservation. Creature Conserve, RISD and the International Fund for Animal Welfare are partners on the exhibit.

“Scientific data and artistic expression, presented separately, have not had their intended impact,” according to the Creature Conserve website. “Together, art and science reach a wider audience with a more inclusive message. Science provides the roadmap for conservation; art motivates people to follow it.”

One of a series of 'empathy tattoos' drawn by a former RISD student for Creature Conserve. It highlights the plight of a rock snail, which the artist describes as 'equally important to the web of life' as the more charismatic giant panda. The snail was declared extinct in 2000, but was rediscovered in 2012. (Samantha Dempsey/Creature Conserve)

The Creature Conserve website includes, among other things, a gallery of student artwork responding to environmental challenges, and details about an ongoing program to help protect giant otters in Guyana, a country on South America's North Atlantic coast.

Spelman said many artists associated with the upcoming exhibit said speaking with wildlife experts changed their work.

“Listening and talking to the experts encouraged them to delve deeper,” she said. “It changed what they made and their views.”

Interactions ranged from conference calls with experts on the ivory trade to a visit to the zoo. While daunting, Spelman considers the problem of animal trafficking to be a solvable one.

“Really, this is about humans deciding we are not going to over-consume what we have left,” she said. “It’s a lot more solvable in the short term than problems like climate change.”

A primary solution, according to Spelman, is to ensure people have the means to provide for themselves and their families without resorting to animal trafficking. "A lot of this is happening because people need money," she said.

Many chimpanzees end up as bush meat or in the pet trade, when struggling farmers kill or trap them to prevent the animals from raiding their crops, according to Spelman.

"People are starving or struggling and the animals left in the wild are the only things they can get," she said. "People who are poor and starving are going to take what they need."

Spelman said a poacher's behavior is reinforced when wealthier people buy chimpanzees as pets, elephant tusks as trophies, or pangolin scales as jewelry. The success of a poacher can be contagious, leading neighbors to engage in the same behavior.

“The income gap is affecting wildlife just like it’s affecting everything else,” she said.

Educating people about better farming practices or how to start a business serves them and the natural world around them better in the long run, Spelman said.

“Effective conservation organizations help people live healthier lives and remain in balance with nature," she said. "Only healthy people can save wildlife. Human and animal health is intricately connected."

Other societal stressors such as war, illegal activity and a growing human population also increase the frequency of animal trafficking, Spelman noted. "We need to decrease demand for the animals being traded, stop corruption and illegal trade, and increase the amount of money we spend protecting endangered species," she said.

But, until people understand the stakes, these solutions are unlikely to take hold, which is where Spelman hopes her exhibit can make a difference.

"Artists have the power to learn a topic, select what they think someone can digest quickly through a piece of artwork, and hook them to want to learn more," Spelman said.