Portrait of Laura Thomas-Walters

Laura Thomas-Walters

PhD student
Conservation Biology


PhD project: Social marketing and behaviour change for demand reduction in wildlife trade 

Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is a top international priority, as it poses a major threat to many species. Traditionally, practitioners have sought to address the problem though supply-side interventions, such as trade bans, anti-poaching measures, and even wildlife farming. However, these attempts to reduce the supply of wildlife products have largely failed and poaching of certain high-value species such as tigers, elephants and pangolins is on the rise, driven by growing demand from consumers in East Asia. Thus, conservationists increasingly recognise the importance of demand-side interventions, which involve changing the attitudes and behaviour of people who currently use illegal wildlife products. 

Social marketing uses marketing concepts to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good. Barriers to desired behaviours are identified, and addressed via campaigns featuring a range of behaviour change tools such as incentives, commitments and social norms. The ‘Chi Campaign’, a rhino horn demand-reduction programme in Vietnam run by TRAFFIC and Save The Rhino, is one example of a campaign using an evidence-based social-science approach to social marketing. 

Another advantage of social marketing is that it provides a framework for measuring project effectiveness. This is important because while many NGOs run demand-reduction marketing campaigns, the extent to which they are grounded in evidence-based practice is unclear. To maximise effectiveness, campaigns should address market characteristics and drivers of demand. There are many factors that influence the success of demand-reduction campaigns and the academic literature has investigated a number of issues, such as how the rarity value of a product makes using it a status symbol, and whether celebrity-based campaigns are more effective in changing social attitudes. However, the extent to which NGOs draw on published social science research to inform the design of social marketing campaigns is unknown. 

Laura proposes to analyse the trends in current and past demand-reduction campaigns, examine the behavioural economics/psychology literature for suggestions on how they may better address demand, and then conduct trials of alternative social marketing tools. In addition, she aims to create a scientifically rigorous framework for use by NGOs in demand-reduction campaigns, similar to the EAST framework for government policymakers developed by the British Behavioural Insights Team.

Laura Thomas-Walters is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology


Dr Bob Smith


University of Kent Alumni Research Scholarship  



  • Jones, J., Thomas‐Walters, L., Rust, N., Veríssimo, D. and Januchowski‐Hartley, S. (2019). Nature documentaries and saving nature: Reflections on the new Netflix series Our Planet. People and Nature [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10052.
    Netflix recently launched its high‐profile nature documentary Our Planet. Voiced by Sir David Attenborough in English (with Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz and other Hollywood actors voicing versions simultaneously released in 10 other languages), Netflix are making a clear play for core BBC territory. However, they claim that this is a nature documentary with a difference as it puts the threats facing nature front and center to the narrative. We coded the scripts of Our Planet, and those of three recent Attenborough‐voiced BBC documentaries, to explore the extent to which threats (and conservation action and success) are discussed. The only other series which comes close to the frequency with which these issues are discussed is Blue Planet II, but Our Planet is unique in weaving discussion of these issues throughout all episodes rather than keeping them to a dedicated final episode. However, although Our Planet sounds different to other documentaries, the visuals are very similar. Nature is still mostly shown as pristine, and the presence or impacts of people on the natural world very seldom appear. We discuss the potential consequences of nature documentaries erasing humans from the land/seascape. We also discuss the mechanisms by which nature documentaries may have a positive impact on conservation. Despite links between information provision and behaviour change being complex and uncertain, nature documentaries may, at least in theory, elicit change in a number of ways. They may increase willingness amongst viewers to make personal lifestyle changes, increase support for conservation organizations, and generate positive public attitudes and subsequently social norms towards an issue, making policy change more likely. Netflix is certainly bringing biodiversity and the threats it faces into the mainstream, but the mechanisms by which viewing these representations translates to concrete behaviour change are poorly understood. Increasing interest in robust impact evaluation, integrating qualitative and quantitative methods, means the time is right to explore how both showing nature on screens and talking about the threats it faces, affects people in ways which might, ultimately, contribute to saving it.
Last updated