At 8:20 pm on January 27, almost one month ago, I touched down in Kenya at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Before I got off the plane, I had already received a text message from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). At that time, I was bored waiting for my luggage, so instead of deleting the message as usual, I read it. They wanted me to have a safe and wonderful trip in Kenya and also gave me some advice, such as “do not go out alone at night”. I promptly discarded that counsel. I was in Kenya to learn about elephant conservation and the ivory trade with China House, the first Chinese social enterprise in Africa focusing on studying and improving China-Africa engagement.
In the past month, I visited organizations such as Save the Elephants, Wildlife Direct, and heavily researched both elephant conservation and the ivory trade. I was quite shocked when I learned that there are legal ivory markets in both Mainland China and Hong Kong. As Chinese demand for ivory skyrockets, I started to think about issues of which I previously never took notice — Research indicates that China’s middle class are buying ivory, but I have never personally known anyone who did so despite the fact that my family and most of my peers are middle class.
And I began to reflect: I am passionate about animals, especially for elephants which are my favorite, but I did not do anything to improve their lives. Maybe now. after observing and learning best practices in elephant conservation from leading experts, I can try offering some advice about how to better save the elephants. Leaving tomorrow for China, here are the thoughts of a mainland Chinese who has been on the frontlines in war against elephant poaching:
In my opinion, although China is the destination market for, we should focus more on the current Chinese in Africa. On the one hand, they have the access to the local ivory market which is fast becoming the major channel to source ivory back to China. On the other hand, it is easier to change perceptions among the Chinese in Africa because, if we engage them in the right way, African elephants are closer and realer to them than to the Chinese in China. From personal experience, it is totally different when you have a chance to be physically close to elephants than seeing them on books or televisions. When you see them in front of you, when you have the chance to smell them, even to touch them, your affection for them grows and you understand why we should be against the ivory trade. I think if we do more about these Chinese communities who are potentially involved in wildlife-related crimes, ivory smuggling in Africa will be curtailed.
I think some of the Chinese in Africa who are arrested of ivory did not know the laws because they did not pay any attention to announcement messages sent by the Chinese government, the same sort of message I received when I touched down in Nairobi. For instance, a friend of mine who came to Kenya with me deleted the message before reading it (without hesitation). Many Chinese behave the same way as she does. In their minds, the message is just an empty routine for the government to fulfill their duties and has no real meaning. They usually choose to ignore it. How do we improve the situation for such people?
- First we can divide the Chinese into two basic groups according to the frequency of their visits. For first-time arrivals to Kenya, they must use their Chinese SIM cards on their cell phones so they will certainly get the MOFA message. For them we could improve the importance of these messages by emphasizing the punishment if they disobey local Kenyan laws. For Chinese who have previously visited Kenya, they probably have Kenyan SIM cards which means they will probably not receive the MOFA message. However, I think we can collaborate with local telecommunication operators, such as Safaricom, Airtel, and Orange, to send the same message to remind people to comply with local laws. Actually, from my experience, the Chinese who are more likely to buy ivory are the ones who have been in Africa for a long time and probably have local SIM cards: if they are not here long enough, they actually will not know know where to buy ivory.
- Other than normal phone messaging systems, Chinese social media apps, such as Wechat and Weibo, are quite effective in disseminating information. When they use location-based services, we can easily know who is in Kenya and share related videos or stories with them. I noticed that YouTube advertisements are totally different when played in different countries, and people must watch them for at least five seconds. If we work with a Chinese company like Tencent or Sina, maybe we could put together some sort of similar public service announcement for Chinese communities in Africa.
- More importantly, we can improve the message to make it more effective. Last time I went to the Wildlife Direct office, I found a poster of a person’s hands bound with ivory and chains, with a slogan about the hands saying that the price of ivory is life imprisonment. Such powerful messages are important: unfortunately, to stop the majority of Chinese ivory buyers, I think punishment is a more effective deterrent than asking them to sympathize with elephants. My research about Chinese ivory smuggling at airports points to most smugglers just putting ivory products in their suitcases. We must emphasize that such smuggling will be found out and the legal consequences.
- Most smugglers are arrested at airport checkpoints, and using the physical space of airports is crucial to stopping ivory smuggling. Promotional videos and messages are important, but customs officials should inform visitors not to carry ivory in their language, perhaps even asking everyone to sign a document promising to refuse ivory.
- The last point I want to raise is that Africans should turn the idea of elephants into something equivalent of our pandas, which Chinese people will understand clearly. In the past decade, Chinese people have been extremely successful in panda conservation, and Kenyans can learn something from that to raise the importance of elephants in the whole country as a national symbol. We Chinese all know that the cute panda is our national treasure so everyone likes it and protects it. When I ask Chinese whether they care about the pandas, the answer is a definite “yes”. But when ask about the elephant, they will tell me it is none of their business to protect African elephants. I believe it is necessary for the Chinese people to see similarities between the two important animals, perhaps by pairing elephants and pandas together in public service announcements. Once Kenya has made the elephant its “panda”, Chinese people would better understand the significance of the animal.
I am also grateful for the experiences that I have had in Kenya over the past month, as it was a privilege to be in the country. Having witnessed elephants walking and eating peacefully in the bush, I am even more committed to protecting them. I hope that the above recommendations can lead to a better life for the elephants in their natural habitat.
This article first appeared on Cowries & Rice on February 24, 2015.