A jumbo approach to a perennial Social Marketing Problem
by Neil Henderson

elephants_and_weeds.jpg In show biz they say “never work with children or animals.” As coordinators for two Charitable Trusts involved in environmental work in Waitakere City, New Zealand, we have long worked with the former but only recently have we discovered the surprise benefits of incorporating the latter, however vicariously, into our programs.
What follows is a brief look at how a couple of elephants gave one of our programs a refreshing boost and provided an enriching slant to one of the key social marketing principles we deal with: Mutual Benefit.

The big problem: environmental weeds

 Greater Auckland, New Zealand, is considered the weediest city in the world and, of the regional cities that form it, Waitakere City is the epicentre with over 300 invasive weeds, like wild ginger, jasmine, tradescantia and climbing asparagus, threatening the native forest of the Waitakere ranges sitting right at the doorstep of the urban environment. The Waitakere Ranges are a unique natural heritage feature, boasting huge kauri trees, regenerating wild areas and rugged seascapes. It is widely recognized that we need to act, and there are many groups of volunteers working to protect these natural places from invasive weed infiltration. The Waitakere City Council already has a strong, internationally recognized environmental policy, and programs like its Green Network, for example, offer landowners assistance with invasive weed removal, by providing free weed bins and bags, subsidies for contractors, and rebates for placing covenants on privately-owned forest. In addition, our own Charitable Trusts: The Weedfree Trust and Keep Waitakere Beautiful Trust (see www.ecomatters.org.nz ),  run a yearly War On Weeds campaign whereby we place large weed bins at sites around the city for a month of constant turnover. Last year, over 120 tons of environmental weeds were collected. The martial approach has been a popular social strategy widely used to boost motivation for invasive weed control, and we have many Weed Warriors and Weedbusters skirmishing on the front lines. (See www.weedbusters.org.nz )
The Social marketer’s problem: volunteers and landowners disengaging

 There are so many different weeds and they grow so fast in the Waitakere rainforest environment that the War on Weeds sometimes seems endless. Volunteers and landowners, who might start with enthusiasm, begin to get jaded after a time and tire of battles they feel they may not win. One weed seems to replace another, and if effort is not disciplined and sustained, the problem seems to be back within a few months, worse than before. There is also a significant group of people to whom a call to arms and its underlying emphasis on conflict is not even an appealing incentive. If the land under management is privately owned, we can perhaps look to motivators like increased land value if the owners can get it weedfree, but in order to encourage weekend volunteers to go out and restore a stream bank or help weed a bush reserve, they often need something extra. For the principle of Mutual Benefit to work effectively in any social marketing strategy, questions like “What’s in it for me?" are valid and cannot always be answered by recourse to a long-term goal that may help the distant descendants of today’s volunteers .

 Recently, new programs for weed removal and restoration have begun to address this need to provide that extra in the way of benefits to volunteers. Project Twin Streams (see www.waitakere.govt.nz ), for example, which is committed to restoration work on major streams in the Waitakeres, hosts planting days with entertainment, art and food in order to celebrate, as much as anything, the simple act of community coming together. In addition to this, an extensive cycle way is being constructed along the target streams as a way of providing a medium-term motivator.

Giant Reed and Elephants: mutual exchange coming in from left field

  While visiting a private property to give advice on weed removal, I happened to notice a bushy grass in one corner. It was a variegated form of giant reed (Arundo donax), an invasive grass that in its wild state grows to three times the height of a man and infests many waterways around the world. One of the fastest growing land plants in the world, it is also a major problem in some of our Waitakere streams. I had worked with a couple of groups in the past on removing it but without much success. It was hard to motivate people to take interest in tackling such a difficult, tenacious weed.

When I pointed out this domestic version, I was told by the property owner that he regularly provided “browse” to the Auckland Zoo for the Elephants  and, aside from some bamboo varieties he had, this plant was very popular. Neither he nor the zookeepers had known what the plant was, just that the elephants liked it.
After some research, I discovered that giant reed is a favoured staple in the diet of Asian elephants and, as Kashin and Burma, our local pachyderms, fit the bill, we soon had the Auckland Zoo interested in a trial truckload. It was a great success, and the beasts proved worthy by demolishing almost 200 kilos in a single day. The Zoo “Browse Team” was happy to have the reed delivered for free, and for us, finding a volunteer group willing to go out and cut some was suddenly very easy. As soon as it was mentioned that we would be hauling the harvest right into the elephant’s enclosure and that a few of the group could come along for the ride, we had 40 eager workers from a local Church of Latter Day Saints consisting of adults and children.
Since the first delivery there have been over a dozen other harvests, and the new program developing from it has generated regular publicity, including TV coverage and newspaper articles. The simple hooking up of elephants with an invasive weed campaign has created a complex system of mutual exchanges we have only just begun to explore. Granted the elephants can only deal with a token amount of the giant reed, and it is only one weed out of hundreds, but our Charible Trusts are finding that regular volunteers and paid professionals alike are taking a new delight in their work, now that there is the promise of an occasional harvesting and delivery of what amounts to a giant salad for the huge animals. Since landfill is still often the only destination for most of the weeds that we work with, this novel destination provides an authentic sense of follow through; there is some thing deeply satisfying about preparing a meal and seeing it eaten with such relish!
The Auckland Zoo, for its part, has long been developing its own conservation and environmental programs, and if the elephants appear to play a role in this, they are seen as environmental champions by the simple act of eating truckloads of giant reed and running bamboo and reducing it to harmless and useful “zoo doo,” it can only enrich the ties this iconic creature has with local communities and individual psyches. With this in mind, we are already bringing our invasive weed messages into schools on the backs of these giants and are planning to work with the Zoo to develop a program whereby volunteers might potentially remove a range of environmental weeds from private and business properties, on the understanding that the latter make a donation or sponsor an endangered animal recovery program, either at home or abroad.

The long term goal may be an invasive-weed-free natural environment that will be a delight to our descendants, but there is no reason for the rest of us not to have enjoyed the journey there, one mouthful at a time.

Neil Henderson is trained as a Botanist/Zoologst. He has been working with the  two trusts for about three years. Prior to this he worked with the New Zealand Government Department of Conservation  tracking native Kaka (a wild parrot) and doing surveys of  bird populations like the rare Kokako. He also work with schools on Stream Education programmes with an emphasis on bringing  them into close contact with a variety of  creatures like fresh water eels and crayfish. Like the elephants with the reeds, an eel in a bucket  brings out the best in people.