Sara Walker is the Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Prior to joining AZA, Sara was the Executive Director of the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA), until a merger was announced in 2018 that AZA and WTA would be joining forces to combat wildlife trafficking. As the Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking, Sara continues to lead the efforts of the WTA and also work closely with AZA members on wildlife trafficking issues.
Prior to leading the WTA, Sara was the Director of Wildlife at The Humane Society of the United States, leading two national campaigns that focused on fur-free fashion and lead-free initiatives. Under her leadership, the fur-free campaign educated the luxury fashion industry about cruelty-free alternatives and exposed rampant false labeling of “faux” products; and the lead-free campaign raised awareness about lead-based ammunition and sought state and federal policies to adopt stricter environmental standards for hunting and fishing equipment.
From 2010-2014, Sara was responsible for a variety of domestic and international energy and climate initiatives at the United Nations Foundation, serving most recently as the Associate Director of Global Outreach on a global climate science communications project around the release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report. In these roles, Sara led outreach activities across a broad range of global and domestic stakeholders; and developed comprehensive policy and campaign strategies that sought to change public opinion and influence policymakers.
Sara also has extensive experience working on environmental and natural resource policy at the state legislative level, in addition to state political campaign management experience. An Oregon native, Sara earned her MA in International Relations from the University of San Diego and her BA in International Studies from the University of Oregon. She also holds an AA in Flight Technology and is a certified commercial pilot.
Travel Research Online TRO): Hi, Sara. How are you today?
Sara Walker (SW): I’m very well, thank you. And I appreciate your interest in this important issue!
TRO: Looking at your bio, it seems as if you’ve always been an advocate for nature. How’d you realize that nature conservancy was what you wanted to do as a career?
SW: I would love to say that I had one major, defining moment in my life that changed the trajectory of my career, but my story is not that exciting! I was fortunate to grow up in the Pacific Northwest, which definitely provided me an innate appreciation for nature from a very young age. It’s easy to underappreciate the mystic beauty that the region provides when you are surrounded by it on a daily basis. But as I grew up and began traveling outside of my “bubble,” I learned that not everyone grew up with the same connection and sense of stewardship over the outdoors that I had been provided. From geographic challenges to economic barriers, so many individuals don’t have the same opportunities that many take for granted. Because human activities are to blame for the majority of environmental and wildlife crisis we are facing today, we must also look to humans to solve the problem. Educating the public about why we should all care about nature, and the consequences involved if we don’t, is something that I feel is critically important if we are to leave this planet healthy for future generations.
TRO: I would imagine with the number of travelers looking for more exotic sites rising, the need for protecting the natural world has increased. How are groups like yours meeting this need?
SW: We certainly want to continue to encourage travel, particularly when it comes to sustainable travel. But consumers need to understand that not all travel excursions are created equally, and some may actually be detrimental to the environment, wild animal populations, or to the local communities that they’re operating in. It’s important that we help steer consumers in the right direction, informing them about sustainable operators and teaching them about the choices that can be made along the way that could negatively impact wildlife.
TRO: When it comes to informing people of the repercussions of buying animals and animal products from illegal wildlife traffickers, what do you think is the most essential takeaway they should know?
SW: That YOU have the power to stop the illegal wildlife trade! Wild animals are being slaughtered by the thousands, often for just a single body part, to meet consumer demand for jewelry, clothing, medicine, carvings, souvenirs, and other household items including art, sculptures, rugs and musical instruments. Because consumer demand is fueling the trade, the quickest and most direct way to stop poaching is to stigmatize and reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products. Consumers have the power to do this by putting their wallet in line with their values, and being informed before they travel.
TRO: You probably travel a bit for your job. What are your favorite destinations?
SW: Yes, traveling is one of the best parts of my job! Anywhere that I can view wild animals in their natural /native habitats is a real treat. Often, these travel experiences are also supporting the livlihoods of local residents as well ,which makes it that much more special. Unfortunately, as wild populations are rapidly declining, our opportunities to view them—and the economic value that provides to the locals—decreases as well.
TRO: What would you tell the travel agent who wants to help curb, and ultimately stop, the purchasing and trafficking of items like ivory and other wildlife products?
SW: I would say “Welcome to the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance!” Travel agents are a critical part of the industry and have the ability to educate thousands of individuals that we cannot reach alone. The Wildlife Trafficking Alliance offers a variety of resources to help make educating your audiences very easy, including a communications toolkit that is available for all WTA partners. The toolkit provides various educational materials for travelers, including brochures, PSAs, posters, billboards, social media content, etc.
TRO: We all know that travel itself is not inherently bad and is actually quite good for cultural exchange and variety. In your opinion, what other ways can the travel industry help protect natural environments?
SW: The travel industry comprises a huge part of the global GDP, which means there are a lot of resources (and audiences) that can be leveraged to help protect the environment. From working with local conservation organizations to joining an organization like WTA, there are many ways a travel company can positively contribute. After all, they have a large stake in this issue: as wildlife populations decline, they will lose the ability to utilize that asset to attract travelers. Wildlife trafficking is literally decimating entire populations of species. Combatting the illegal trade isn’t just good for the environment, but is also good for business.
TRO: The TWA is working with agencies like Hidden Treasures, Inc. to spread the word about illegal wildlife trafficking. Are you working with any other groups or agencies to get the awareness out there?
SW: Yes, we have a coalition of over seventy partners—and growing! The coalition includes leading companies, nonprofits, and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that are all working together to combat wildlife trafficking in a variety of industries and communities. Additional travel partners include the Adventure Travel Trade Association, Natural Habitat Adventures, Cruise Lines Interntational Association, Royal Caribbean, Ltd., Carnival Corporation, Association of Travel Advisors, Expedia.Com, and JetBlue.
TRO: What can our readers expect from the WTA in the near future?
SW: WTA will be working over the next two years to significantly expand the communications toolkit, including more material , translated into additional languages; and materials that offer more regionally-specific information for travelers. We’ll also be exploring the use of technology to distribute the materials in a targeted way to travelers, where they are already using a mobile app or device. We’re also working on developing a set of policies and best practices that travel companies can adopt to assure their own practices and supply chains are free and clear of illegal wildlife products; or shopping/excursion opportunities that may not be beneficial to wildlife and local cultures.
TRO: Sara, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us.
SW: Thank you!
If you’d like to find out more about the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, and how you can help their efforts, please visit http://wildlifetraffickingalliance.org/.