The following article was written by Gu Ruirui through a partnership with China House Kenya.
“Before going to Africa, I didn’t realize that ivory requires killing,” said Elaina, a 16-year-old student on a volunteer trip to Africa. “In my imagination, people took ivory from elephants that had died of natural causes. Either that, or the ivory tusks, once shed, can re-grow again and again, making it easy to provide a large quantity of raw materials necessary for manufacturing. But now, I realize I was wrong about everything.”
Standing in front of thousands of elephant skeletons in Tsava East national park, and seeing the poacher-inflicted wounds on the elephants’ head, Elaina nearly burst into tears. “I will tell everyone around me to reject ivory products once I return to China,” she concluded firmly. And with that, Elaina, after volunteering with Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), had taken her first step towards become a conservationist.
Benson, the chief Ranger of the Kasigau community, responsible for patrolling the area between Tsavo West and East National Parks, seems to have undergone a comparable transformation through his interactions with Elaina and her peers: “Before seeing these young Chinese boys and girls, I assumed that every Chinese would smuggle ivory. To many African people, Chinese people are murderers of African elephants. We can’t believe Chinese people would be involved in wildlife conservation,” Benson reflected. “But now, I am very pleased to know that many Chinese people will take part in the battle against ivory poachers. This will be a good sign for African elephants.”
The simultaneous transformation of young lady and ranger seems typical of interactions between Chinese and Africans. For the former, ignorance and apathy about ivory trade becomes empathy for elephants and indignation for poachers and trafficking; for the latter, hostility and antipathy towards Chinese becomes peaceful communication and opportunity for cooperation. This experience demonstrates how stereotype indeed exists, and exert a huge a influence on the Sino-African relationship, particularly regarding about wildlife conservation. Absent communication, misconceptions thrive.
To begin to address this issue, it’s necessary to unpack the understanding of ivory among Chinese, which is deep-rooted in Chinese traditional culture. Indeed, there is a long history of ivory carving in China, dating back three thousand years. Items made of ivory – for instance, chopsticks, jewelry and other ornaments – have signified noble status for ages.
To this day, ivory products indicate wealth, elegance and dignity in the minds of some Chinese people. On the bullet train headed for Beijing, passengers hear the broadcast: “Beijing, the capital of China, is famous for ivory carving…” In 2006, ivory carving was even listed as part of the “national intangible cultural heritage” by Ministry of Culture in China. What’s more, the Chinese government got permission to import legal ivory from Africa by using the rational of handing-down traditional handicrafts.
At the same time, information about conservation issues has been somewhat overlooked in authoritative propaganda for a long time. As a result, many Chinese people, like Elaina, believe that ivory regrows once it’s removed, and that people get ivory from naturally dead elephants. To many Chinese people, ivory evokes exquisite artwork rather than bloody massacre.
In reality, only a small fraction of Chinese people consumes ivory products, as they are luxuries in China. “I think they would not consume these products, if they knew what really happens.” Said Elaina.
Fortunately, the Chinese government has indicated its determination to curb ivory smuggling in recent years. State Forestry Administration and General Administration of Customs destroyed 662 kilograms of illegal ivory and products on May 29, 2015. Chairman Xi Jinping and President Obama promised jointly act to completely halt ivory imports and exports in September, 2015. Soon after, the State Forestry Administration of China declared a one-year ban on importing legal ivory on October 2015. “The promise made by Chairman Xi ensures a great victory in the battle against poachers of elephants. This claim will save tens of thousands of elephants.” Said Azzedine Downes, CEO of conservation organization IFAW.
At the same time, many Chinese celebrities have gotten involved in conservation. For example, Yao Ming, a famous NBA player, became the ambassador of Wildaid, an international conservation organization and shoots short movies to arouse people’s awareness of conservation.
With the increasing flows of information, the real condition of African elephants is being exposed to more and more Chinese people. A growing number of Chinese are engaged in wildlife conservation. According to Hongxiang Huang, CEO of China House, a Kenyan organization that provides service to Chinese companies and students, nowadays it’s not rare to see many Chinese teenagers volunteering in African countries, especially during summer and winter vacation.
When encountering the group of volunteers that made up Elaina’s cohort, many Kenyans were surprised and exhilarated, making comments like: You are the youngest Chinese we have seen! We can’t believe Chinese students will take part in the wildlife conservation. Communication is very important for we assume that all Chinese will harm animals.
Several admitted that for a long time, because of the absence of communication and exchange, they often saw Chinese and assumed they were smugglers and buyers of ivory and rhino horns. They did not know Chinese government has begun to combat trafficking and that the majority of Chinese still do not consume ivory at all.
However, when they encountered this group of Chinese, who love animals and are devoted for animal welfare, they seem to be changing their minds. “More and more Chinese people will know what is really happening about ivory and elephants,” Kahindi, an expert that works with ANAW, muses. Also, more and more Africans will make acquaintance with China. I am very happy to see Chinese students join us and I hope they will tell more people the reality about African wild animals.”
Gu Ruirui, a Chinese teacher who took Chinese students to Kenya to learn about conservation in early 2016