Grantee Film Sways Undecided Nations at CoP17, Gains Protection for Mobulid Rays

We kick off our 2017 blog series with an excellent example of a grantee who used film to create impact.  Action Grantee Danny Copeland has wrapped up his successful campaign Love Mini Mantas, and delivered us his incredibly thorough and detailed final report this week.  The project hoped to assist in gaining protection for mobulid rays, whose gill plates have been highly desireable in Asian medicine, endangering the existence of the species. 

The campaign's ultimate goal was to help ensure the mobula proposal made it across the political finishing line at the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17), held in Johannesburg, South Africa.  To do this, the campaign set-out to create a 360 virtual reality film to take decision-makers at CITES on an underwater encounter with the very animals they would soon vote on. The aim was to ensure that CITES delegates understood and truly engaged with the mobula proposal, and ideally gain a favorable vote from nations that were previously undecided or uninformed.  The idea was to play it to as many delegates as possible before the final vote on the mobula proposal with a special effort made to target CITES Party Delegates. These Party Delegates were the individuals actually representing governments at CoP17, and were there to cast their nation's vote on each species proposal.

To gather footage for the film, a small team traveled to the island of Saint Maria in the Azores in September 2016.  Diligently, Danny spent long days editing footage to complete his 360VR film in time for the CITES conference later that month.  Danny and team members from Manta Trust traveled to South Africa at the end of September to showcase the film.

For several days the 360VR film was made available to delegates attending the CITES CoP17. The film was also launched and pushed online, both through Youtube and Facebook, in order to elicit petion signatures from the public in support of the mobula proposal.  While the online petition signatures did not garner as much support has hoped, the distribution of the film at the CITES conference proved to be very well received. 

At the CITES conference over the course of several days, roughly 17% of all Party Delegates viewed the 360VR film. These are individuals that formally represent the governments attending the conference, and therefore are individuals that decide or influence the voting position their country takes on a particular proposal. While 17% may seem low, Danny explained that these individuals represented 56 out of the 152 CITES nations that attended CoP17. Therefore 37% of the CITES nations in attendance had at least one member of their Party Delegation view the 360VR film, and consequently engage with the Mobula proposal to some extent. While the project had hoped to strive for reaching more than 75% of CITES nations, after attending a CITES CoP in person Danny explains it became clear that this number was overly ambitious - to have reached 37% of nations was a sizable achievement in itself.

With a landslide majority of 84%, the Mobula proposal was successful at CoP17. Thus the conservation outcome that the 360VR film had worked towards was ultimately achieved. However, as Danny finalized his report he pondered - to what extent did the film contribute to this conservation victory? He describes that "it would be unfair to claim that the 360VR film and Love Mini Mantas campaign were the primary driver behind the mobula ray success at CITES. That crown rests deservedly upon the PEW Charitable Trusts.  For the last six years, PEW have spearheaded an NGO coalition (which includes Manta Trust) that has worked behind the scenes to rally the world's governments behind all upcoming shark and ray proposals submitted to CITES. They have an extensive and global team, and are experts in navigating the mine field that is conservation policy. Without PEW, the Mobula proposal would never have made it the CITES CoP17."

Danny goes on to explain that "at the start of a CITES CoP, PEW are able to comfortably list the nations that are 99% certain to vote in favor of a proposal - as well as the nations that are guaranteed to vote against them. It is therefore the 15-25 undecided nations that often determine the fate of a CITES proposal, and these votes are won or lost at the conference itself. Many of these undecided nations sit on the fence because they are notoriously difficult to engage with. They are known to express disdane to being 'shmoozed' by other nations with an agenda, but equally hate being lectured by NGOs who they see as blatantly biased. This is where the 360VR film played its part. The consensus from the experienced sta across PEW and partnering NGOs, was that the 360VR film offered a completely different, innovative and more subtle method to bring undecided nations into the conversation - and ultimately lean them towards voting in favor of mobula protection."

Since the CITES conference, it became clear to Danny where this campaign and 360VR film truly contributed, and that was in swaying half a dozen 'on-the-fence' nations at a critical time when it mattered most. It played a significant role in ensuring that at least five key nations voted in favoring of protecting mobulas under CITES - and when a species needs a 2/3 majority for their proposal to be accepted, it can often come down to the decisions of a handful of nations, that determine the fate of an endangered species threatened by unsustanable trade.   Danny personally experienced several instances where Party Delegates from undecided nations watched the film, and then announced their support for the Mobula proposal while still at the booth.   Danny throughtfully described a particular instance where one nation was swayed to vote for the protection of the mobulid rays: "On the first day of the CITES CoP17 conference, a member of the Party Delegation from the Republic of Congo passed by the 360VR booth. He had noticed the small crowd of delegates gathered at the stand, and having seen people wearing the headsets he asked if he could have a go. The man was in a pretty grumpy mood, and his expressions were cold. He immediately said to the Manta Trust staff member that he 'didn't want to hear any of your NGO nonsense - I just want to watch this movie.'

Upon taking off his headset, it became clear to those at the booth that the man was crying! When awkwardly asked if he enjoyed the film, he began to recount a story from his youth. As a child the man lived in a coastal village in the Republic of Congo, and would often see schools of mobula ray swimming up and down the coastline. Apparently the villagers have not seen these rays in years, and no one had any idea why. The project leader sat with him for a further 10 minutes, answering his many questions about mobula conservation and the threats that face them. The next day, the man returned with the rest of his Party Delegation, including the Head of Delegation who would ultimately cast the final vote on any species proposal. One by one the group watched the VR film, and while none of them removed the headset with tears in their eyes, it was apparent that they had all been emotionally moved as well.

The Republic of Congo was one of the African nations noted by PEW as 'undecided / leaning towards no' for the shark and mobula proposals. The Head of Delegation later confirmed that the film had helped them make up their mind, and that they would now vote in favor of all three proposals. He went on to organize a brief meeting with the heads of the various shark and ray NGOs, to discuss how their country should implement wider marine conservation initatives along their coastline."

It is stories like this one that make Danny's project extra special.  Danny's project is a perfect example of how films create impact - and choosing the appropriate audience for a film can heavily determine what the impact of the film is.  Danny targeted CITES delegates with his film, and using an innovative method of technology immersed viewers into the world of this threatened species.  Undecided nations were swayed to vote in favor of protecting the mobulid rays - and now this important marine species has protection!  We are so grateful to have worked with him and know this is not the last we will see of Danny Copeland!  Currently Danny is gathering underwater VR content of endangered marine megafauna around the world, for a virtual reality educational exhibit at The Dubai Aquarium.  We wish him all the best in this and all future endevours!

Learn more about the CMG Action Grant program here.